New ICE immigrant prison proposed in Mich. stirs debate
A resident of Ionia, Michigan, who opposes the proposal for a new immigrant prison, said he's worried the prison will hurt the city's image
By Niraj Warikoo
Detroit Free Press
IONIA, Mich. — About two hours west of Detroit, just north of the 96 highway near a Menards store, sits 106 acres of farmland in Ionia Township.
On this spot, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and a private company, Immigration Centers of America (ICA), want to build a 152,000-square-foot prison that would house up to 600 male foreign-born detainees. The prisoners would only be those charged with civil violations of immigration law, awaiting their hearings, not those charged or convicted of criminal violations.
The center would be run by Immigration Centers of America, a Virginia company seeking a contract with ICE. ICE is currently in the environmental assessment stage and no contract has yet been awarded, but ICE has sent a letter to Ionia County about its proposal.
The plans have sparked criticism from some Ionia residents and immigrant advocates who say such a detention center will lead to increased repression of immigrant communities and family separations. It comes at a time of intense debate about immigration as the Trump administration toughens immigration enforcement. Ionia officials say it will bring jobs to their area while opponents say it will violate civil rights and could eventually close.
"It's only going to further jeopardize the lives and civil rights of those detained, especially given that Immigration Centers of America, who would be running the facility ... already has a history of inhumane practices and various complaints," Monica Andrade, an attorney with of the Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said last week during an online news conference. There's also concern about infectious disease outbreaks with the coronavirus given that ICA had a mumps outbreak last year at its center in Virginia, said advocates.
The new proposal comes after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer nixed last year a previous proposal by Immigration Centers of America for a $35 million immigration prison at another site in Ionia because it was unable to guarantee the center would not be used to detain people who were separated from their children. Whitmer blocked the sale of the former Deerfield Correctional Center Ionia, a former state prison, to Immigration Centers of America.
"Separating families doesn't reflect our Michigan values," Whitmer said last year.
But since this new proposal is on private land and in a township that doesn't have zoning regulations for private sales, it may have an easier time getting approved.
Proponents say the new center will provide immigrant detainees a better environment compared with county jails, where they are often housed along with criminals.
"Right now, someone who is determined by the court to be here illegally, they're either sent to a local county jail or a detention facility, housed typically with criminals, for things like assault or drugs or something like that," said John Truscott, a spokesman for Immigration Centers of America. "In this detention facility, they are not, so it's a safer facility. They're given full medical attention, dental care, Internet access, exercise facilities."
The immigration detention center will also be more accommodating than county jails in visitation policies, he said. In county jails, "they have very rigid visitation schedules," but at an ICA center, you can visit outside of 9 to 5, he said.
The immigrant detention center will produce 260 to 275 jobs with an average salary of about $65,000, Truscott said.
Truscott said the state doesn't have the authority to block the plan like last year's proposal since it's on private land.
Ionia officials generally agree with the plan, saying it can help create jobs in the region, which residents say is known for having prisons.
"I understand that the members of the Ionia Township Board generally approved the detention center because of the economic benefits," Larry Tiejema, an Ionia County Commissioner, told the Free Press.
A spokesman for ICE in Michigan declined comment.
Timothy Thompson, a resident of Ionia who opposes the proposal for a new immigrant prison, said he's worried the prison will hurt Ionia's image.
"Ionia is known for two things, basically, our free fair and our state prisons," he said. "The fair is a reason that people come to Ionia, but this only lasts for about two weeks out of the year. The prisons, on the other hand, are a reason why people don't want to come to Ionia. That's why they stay away. And these prisons are here year-round."
"Why would we want to add another negative view of our community with this for-profit prison?" he asked. "In a county with limited resources and infrastructure, the addition of this facility will tax our local law enforcement and our health care systems. It will put added pressure on our water and sewer systems also. And most likely within 10 years, there's a good chance that we will have another big empty box, as this prison would be closed down. We don't need that in this town."
A spokeswoman for Whitmer did not return a message seeking comment on the proposal.
Truscott said that it's not for Immigration Centers of America to decide whether the immigration system is fair or not.
"We don't think a judgement call on the immigration system" is needed, he said. "This is reacting to what is currently law and providing a necessary service under the current law. And keep in mind, if not for this, they're going to a county jail. ... It's a much less desirable alternative than an ICA kind of facility."
Critics say ICA is part of what they say is a disturbing trend of for-profit private detention centers where there is an incentive for the company and the town they operate in to detain immigrants.
The company "is aggressively pursuing detention center contracts across the country," said an October report by the National Immigrant Justice Center. "ICA currently operates only one immigration detention center, in Farmville, Virginia, but it already has a track record of avoiding accountability for abusive conditions."
The report alleged that a detainee died and there was a mumps outbreak.
"The company profits from detaining immigrants as it tries to expand to new regions," the report said.
Truscott said in response: "Most of these criticisms have been debunked based on the facts."
Truscott said: "Last summer, the Farmville Detention Center did experience an outbreak of the mumps virus and was placed under mandatory medical quarantine by local health officials, the Prince Edward County Health Department. The subsequent treatment plan of the detainees and staff was also directed by the health department. ... Voluntary vaccinations were made available to the entire detainee population and the staff of the facility. In all, 98% of the detainees agreed to, and were given, the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine."
Regarding the death of a detainee, he said: "Short of a liver transplant nothing could be done to save the detainee’s life. The detainee was transferred to a hospital fairly soon after he arrived and was subsequently transferred to a second hospital where he died."
Truscott also said that "ICA has received grades of 100% compliance with all ICE standards on our annual audits for the last 7 years."
Another concern by opponents is the coronavirus pandemic, which has swept through prisons and immigrant detention centers.
"To make matters worse, the proposal comes at a time of unprecedented health risk during the COVID-19 pandemic," said the ACLU's Andrade.
There are currently 63 ICE detainees at three county jails in Michigan — St. Clair County, Morrow County, Calhoun County — who have tested positive for coronavirus, according to ICE statistics. There are 3,113 ICE detainees nationally who have tested positive.
Eric Bouwens, a physician in Grand Rapids who works at a coronavirus testing center, said: "I am concerned about the construction of a new prison, especially a privately held ICE detention center. As we have recently passed the horrific milestone of a hundred thousand Americans killed by COVID-19, we must look at every institution and every activity in a new way, in terms of how we prevent future contagion and illness."
"A new ICE prison I feel will not make us safer, but will put us all at increased risk of infection," Bouwens said.
ICE sent a letter in April to Ionia County Board of Commissioners about its plans. ICE said that the detention center has to be within a 150-mile radius of their filed office on Detroit's east side, which oversees cases in Michigan and Ohio.
On May 26, the board decided not to vote on the proposal, the Ionia Sentinel-Standard reported.
Oscar Castaneda, a community organizer and immigrant rights advocate in Lansing, praised the board for not taking a vote on the center.
"We see it as a positive development and we're very appreciative of the commissioners in making the decision, which is in line with what seems to be the feelings of the community," he said.
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