Who Profits 1: LA Developer Shane Astani and the Clandestine ICE/ERO Detention Facility in Blue Ash, Ohio

Versión castellana aquí.

ICE: Making People Disappear

One of the most pernicious, yet least remarked-on, features of ICE’s archipelago of detention facilities great and small is their secrecy. This may seem a surprising assertion; after all, the ICE website includes a detention facility locator. However, what appears at first glance to be the act of a transparent government agency is revealed as utterly cynical when one takes into account the fact that ICE has, for years, fought in court for the right to keep the locations of at least some of the facilities in which it imprisons people secret. Repeatedly, ICE has lost these judicial battles and been ordered to make full disclosure. Repeatedly, they have refused to do so.

Lest this should seem academic, consider the following not-at-all hypothetical case: A migrant is caught up in an ICE raid at her workplace. It’s witnessed by someone who knows her family and lets them know what happened. Had it not been for this fortuitous witness, her family might not even have found out that much. Frantically, they try to find out where she’s being held. The detention centre locator is no use. ICE don’t even acknowledge they’re holding her, let alone where.

‘But she was seen being loaded into one of your vans!’

‘I can only go by the information in the system. Now, what did you say your name was again?’

With no information on where their loved one is being held, there’s no way to get her a lawyer, no way to make sure she has the prescription medications she needs, no way to find out whether she’s even all right. 

People get deported simply because they haven’t got their papers with them at the time. People also die in these places. Regularly. 

In 2008, James Prendergraph, executive director of ICE’s Office of State and Location Coordination (as he then was), boasted: ‘If you don’t have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he’s illegal, we can make him disappear,’ a crime against humanity much loved by the US-backed military dictatorships of Latin America. 

It is ICE’s steadfast refusal to disclose the locations of all detention facilities that makes these ‘disappearances’ possible.

As part of the research for this series, I contacted the author of the Nation article above, political science professor Jacqueline Stevens of Northwestern University’s Deportation Research Clinic. She had been publishing on these semi-clandestine detention facilities as early as 2009, and much of what is publicly known on ICE’s network of camouflaged ‘subfield offices’ and ‘hold rooms’ is thanks to her work. In response, she forwarded me a PDF of a letter sent by Alexandra Ellis of the Office of the Principal Legal Advisor in relation to ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) proceedings in which Stevens’ Deportation Research Clinic are seeking full disclosure of all ICE detention facilities. In it, Ellis asserts that ‘the ICE FOIA Office released the one spread sheet [sic] which was responsive to your request in entirety without withholdings. (emphasis supplied).’ To help Dr Stevens verify this assertion, I offered her the address of the ICE detention facility at 9875 Redhill  Drive, Blue Ash, OH, 45242.

It was not on the list.

9875 Redhill Drive: Just Your Average Camouflaged Suburban Immigration Jail

The building at 9875 Redhill Drive in a small industrial estate in Blue Ash, Ohio looks like just another crappy factory. Indeed, for most of its history, that’s precisely what it was. Built in 1969, it spent the first few decades of its existence in the hands of Deluxe Check Printers, before being acquired by Pharmco in 2002. It spent much of the first decade of this century in search of an owner, before ultimately being acquired by a Beverly Hills-based company by the name of Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC in 2011. 

Today, 9875 Redhill Drive is the home of ICE ERO (Enforcement and Removal Operations) and Homeland Security Investigations in southwest Ohio. The Redhill Drive site is a study in innocuousness. Nothing about its exterior would suggest that it is a place where people are routinely held against their will. Indeed, nothing visible from outside even indicates that it is occupied by the US federal government. The only sign in front of the building merely identifies it as 9875 Redhill Drive. Nor do the extensive lists of detention facilities obtained from ICE in FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) litigation mention it. 

A look at the site on Google Maps merely identifies the 9875 Redhill Drive facility as ‘Department of Homeland Security’. Although the site is not classified, ICE clearly have no interest in advertising that they’re operating a detention facility a mere five-minute walk from Edwin H. Greene Intermediate School. However, publicly available documents conclusively show that that's precisely what they're doing.

The 2011 acquisition marked the end of the Redhill Drive site’s days as mundane manufacturing premises, and the beginning of a new life as something far more macabre. The first sign of this new life came in August 2011, one month before the site’s purchase by Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC was made public. On 8 August, 2011, the Blue Ash Board of Site Arrangement convened  to discuss a planning application filed by Redhill Skyline Partners to make an addition to the Redhill Drive site:

Steve Leesman [of Leesman Engineering] explained that the Federal Customs Agency [sic] plans to occupy this existing building and build an addition. Part of the addition is a “sally port” that is used for a large commercial bus to pull into an enclosed area. The other part of the addition is for inside parking. The majority of the building will be enclosed by an 8-foot black privacy and security fence. [Assistant Community Development Director] Dan Johnson explained the fence in the rear only requires administrative approval; the BSA approval would be for the one along Redhill Drive that connects the building on the north and south sides, which is in a front yard. Mr. Johnson pointed out that the detail of the fence is located on the drawings and appears similar to a typical wrought iron fence, with closer spacing. Mr. Leesman said the fence is for security and is virtually indestructible. He said it is approximately 60% opaque.

(emphasis supplied)

The application was approved by all Board members present.

The next year, Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC signed a lease for the 9875 Redhill Drive site with the General Services Administration, the federal agency in charge of acquiring and maintaining facilities for federal government use. In the lease, the site is described as follows:

A total of 29,817 rentable square feet (RSF) of office and detention space, which yields 28,521 ANSI/BOMA Office Area square feet (USF) of space located 9875 Redhill Drive, Entire Facility, Blue Ash, OH 45242-5626 to be used for such purposes as determined by the General Services Administration. Included in the rent at no additional cost to the Government are nineteen (19) on-site, indoor, secured parking spaces and nine (9) on-site, secured, surface parking spaces for exclusive use of Government employees and patrons.

The conclusive proof that this site – which is not mentioned in any of the lists of detention facilities provided by ICE in response to FOIA requests – is indeed an ICE detention facility comes in the form of a 2016 tender for 'IT modernization', in which 9875 Redhill Drive is described as ‘DHS/ICE/ERO’ and a list of ‘Federal Agency Sub-Groups’ identifying the site as belonging to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). 

The only available photos of the site in its current state, showing both the outside additions described in the Blue Ash planning application and the areas in which immigrants are incarcerated, can be found in the portfolio of SASD Enterprises, a construction company closely connected to Redhill Skyline Partners, and to which we will return presently. 

Shane Astani and Alon Abady: At the Intersection of Gentrification and Deportation

Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC, the company receiving variable annual rent from the federal government ranging between $900,000 and $1.15 million for the Redhill Drive detention centre, has a registered address in Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills. Documents available on the website of the California Secretary of State and Corporationwiki, an excellent free (registration required) resource, show that the company was founded in March 2011, only a few months before planning approval for the ICE-related refurbishment was granted, listing Shane Astani as Organiser and William A. Wurch as Agent for Service of Process. In subsequent filings with the California Secretary of State, Astani is listed as Manager along with Los Angeles property speculator Alon Abady. 

In a Certificate of Amendment filed on 25 October 2013, the names of the eponymous partners are given as: 

  • Shane Astani, President of Astani Family Management, Inc., a California corporation, General Partner of Astani Family Partnership, a California limited partnership, Member of Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC, a California limited liability company.
  • Alon Abady, Trustee of The Amended and Restated Alon Abady Trust, dated December 23, 2005, Member of Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC, a California limited liability company.
  • Steven James Doctor, Sr., Trustee of The Doctor Family Trust, dated May 25, 2012, Member of Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC, a California limited liability company.
  • Loretta Marie Doctor, Trustee of The Doctor Family Trust, dated May 25, 2012, Member of Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC, a California limited liability company.

It is clear from the filings that Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC is merely a real estate investment vehicle, and one of many. This is a common legal strategy in the industry. By acquiring properties in the name of a purpose-built limited-liability company, investors not only make it somewhat more difficult to identify the actual beneficial owners of a property, but also limit their liability to the amount they’ve invested in that property. Together, Astani and Abady own numerous properties through dozens of investment vehicles of this type, with names like GSA Eureka Skyline 26 Partners, LLC, Imagine 26 Partners, LLC, and Puente del Sol, LLC. In the case of the Astani-Abady LLCs, the name itself is frequently a reference to the specific property or properties held by the company.

Though relatively unknown in most of the US, the Astani name is synonymous with gentrification and luxury construction in Los Angeles, the Astani family’s adopted home since leaving Iran in the late 1970s. Under the umbrella of Astani Enterprises, they have made a significant contribution to making Los Angeles the sort of place where only a millionaire can afford to live. Their projects there include the Il Borgo townhomes, ‘affordably priced from the low $500’s’ in Santa Fe Springs, The Fifty Five Fifty in Hollywood (‘your keys to the city’, with monthly rents between $2000 and $5000), Wilshire Valencia at 1515 Wilshire Blvd (studio apartments currently on special for $1900 a month), and various others (see http://astanienterprises.com/development). The Astani family are also regular donors to Democratic Party candidates, including Wesley Clark and LA Mayor Antonio Villarraigosa as well as Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. His brother Sonny Astani, with whom he collaborates on the luxury construction end of the business, also received some publicity for donating a total of $3.5 million (equivalent to the cost of seven average town homes at Il Borgo or two and a half years of rent for the Redhill Drive detention centre) to the Skid Row Housing Trust, addition to having a Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at USC named after him.

In addition to his projects for the family business, Shane Astani is the principal of numerous purpose-built limited-liability companies, including Redhill Skyline Partners, LLC, the nominal owner of the ICE/HSI site at 9875 Redhill Drive, is just one. Like Redhill Skyline Partners, Astani operates these LLCs together with one or the other, or both, of his long-time associates, general contractor Steven Doctor and property speculator Alon Abady.

Under the name SASD Development Group, LLC, Astani and Doctor work together on ‘build-to-suit’ projects for the federal government. Their construction projects have included several Veterans’ Administration buildings, the US federal magistrate courthouse in McKinleyville, CA (owned through GSA Eureka Skyline 26 Partners, LLC), a US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) field office in South Carolina (owned through GSA Charleston Skyline 26 Partners, LLC), and, of course, the refurbishment work on the undisclosed, semi-clandestine ICE/ERO detention facility in Redhill Drive. 

Like others who profit by renting out detention space to ICE via the General Services Administration, and whom we will get to know in later in this series, Astani & Co. aren’t particularly interested in publicising their involvement in the detention and deportation business. Indeed, because of the web of purpose-built LLCs positioned between them and the Blue Ash immigrant jail, it is necessary to consult multiple publicly available sources in order to determine both the nature of the Redhill Drive facility and Abady, Doctor, and Astani’s involvement in it. An immigrant himself, Shane Astani would clearly rather be known for gentrification than for deportation.

In the upcoming parts of this series, we’ll get to know a diverse assortment of small-time deportation profiteers who, like Astani & Co., collect average annual rents of roughly a million dollars in exchange for letting ICE imprison migrants in refugees in their spare buildings. They are property developers, full-service construction contractors, prominent citizens with political connections and a steady supply of good press, major donors to the Democrats and the Republicans, as well as small timers no-one’s ever heard of. 

Some of the facilities they profit from are openly acknowledged by ICE. Others, like the Redhill Drive facility, are hiding in plain sight. Some of the owners, like Astani & Co., are demonstrably aware of the human suffering they’re profiting from; others may only be aware that they rent property to the federal government via the GSA. All of them appear to view the GSA/ICE rental business as a sideline, a way to generate income from property nobody else wants to pay for. Together, they probably own less detention space than any one of the incarceration mega-corporations like CCA or CoreCivic. 

Indeed, it is their status as minor players, not fully invested in the immigrant incarceration industry, owners of facilities used as intermediate holding pens at the interstices of the archipelago of detention centres and concentration camps, that makes them worthy of our attention. None of them have chosen to make incarceration part of their brand identity. None of them appears to be fully or primarily dependent on ICE income. They’ve got, at most, one foot in the water, and they could get out of it relatively easily if they should ever find the temperature inhospitable. 

ICE, on the other hand, needs facilities like these because their larger concentration camps are not convenient to all the areas in which they operate. ‘Hold rooms’ and ‘subfield offices’ fill the gap and make the logistics work out.

A final note: Neither this, nor any other publicly available listing of ICE facilities, can ever be regarded as complete. ICE is a secretive agency, and they have shown that they are not above lying about how many places they’re imprisoning people in. To verify the ownership of a building, one must necessarily first know that it exists and where it’s located. There are undoubtedly more unacknowledged immigrant dungeons lurking in the voluminous publicly available lease inventories of the General Services Administration, just waiting to be exposed.

SUPPORT THE PROJECT:

Do you know of an unlisted ICE detention centre (or one you think might be unlisted) or have information about the owner of a 'hold room' or 'subfield office'? Tell me all about it.  

Donations to help keep my work going are welcome both as patronages on here or at https://paypal.me/elisehendrick 

And, of course, please circulate this widely. 

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