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The New Battleground for States, Cities Resisting Trump's Immigration Policies

Detention centers to house prisoners for deportation have become a new battleground for states and cities seeking to resist the Trump administration’s push to deport more immigrants.

By Tim Henderson

Detention centers to house prisoners for deportation have become a new battleground for states and cities seeking to resist the Trump administration’s push to deport more immigrants.

As U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement gears up for President Donald Trump’s promised push to deport more unauthorized immigrants, more and more jail space will be needed to hold immigrants as they get court hearings and are processed for deportation.

But as ICE starts planning the extra detention space called for by Trump’s executive orders, the agency is facing more resistance from states and cities that have also pushed back against other deportation tools such as federal requests to detain inmates scheduled for release, new waves of ICE arrests, and the disclosure of inmates’ release dates.

States and cities that want to protect immigrants face some hard choices, said Randy Capps, director of research for U.S. programs at the Migration Policy Institute, which has studied detention issues in the Midwest.

“There’s been a struggle or battle between ICE and some of the communities where they wanted to house detainees,” Capps said. “But there’s also the issue of what happens when you arrest somebody and take them far across city or state borders. It becomes very difficult for family and also for attorneys to represent them properly.”

In October, soon after California passed a moratorium on new detention centers, the Trump administration said detainees would be the ones to suffer because ICE would “have to detain individuals arrested in California in detention facilities outside of the state, far from any family they may have in California.”

Less than a week later, Oct. 12, ICE announced plans for more detention centers near Chicago, Detroit, Salt Lake City and St. Paul, Minnesota.

No specific projects have been proposed, ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez said, but it’s part of the agency’s $1.2 billion plan to increase detention beds by 50 percent to about 51,000 by 2018.


Crossing State Lines

In some cases ICE has found friendlier territory across state lines when immigrant-friendly cities such as Chicago and Salt Lake City resist plans for more detention.

Management & Training Corporation, a Utah-based private jail operator, has told ICE it could build a center to serve the Salt Lake City area in Uinta County, Wyoming, about 90 miles away, said Issa Arnita, spokesman for the jail operator.

The county commission there already had unanimously passed a resolution in favor of the proposal. Jobs are scarce in the area, and the construction and staffing jobs, as well as property taxes, could be welcome, said Uinta County Commission Chairman Eric South.

“We’re still in a depressed economy here,” South said. “We had a big boom with the oil a few years back, but now it’s all gone. We had a lot of businesses close up.”


Chicago Area Not Receptive

Other areas have not been as receptive: Winnebago County, in northern Illinois, had to drop its proposal to use a county jail for immigrant detention early this year in the face of community opposition.

Across the Indiana border near Chicago, the city of Hobart has been opposed to the idea of a detention center for years, Mayor Brian Snedecor said. But residents still worry that the private jail operator that owns property there will prevail in the future with promises of jobs and taxes, as it did in Wyoming.

“Chicago is more politically organized to resist, but we do have some strong citizen coalitions here in Indiana,” said the Rev. Charles Strietelmeier, a Lutheran pastor in Hobart who has organized demonstrations against proposed detention centers in Hobart and nearby Gary.

Opponents include a mix of immigrant advocates from the Indiana city of East Chicago, near the Illinois border, and other residents who object to having jails in their blue-collar, formerly industrial area.

“We do need the jobs, especially for people without a college degree,” Strietelmeier said. “But prisons are the kind of toxic development that, if you allow them, you’re sending a message to the rest of the world that you’re desperate, that you can’t get better development.”

The GEO Group, an international company that operates private prisons, did not return a call seeking information on plans for its property in Hobart. But GEO already is facing trouble at its Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington.


Tacoma Reverses Expansion Block

Washington state sued the facility in September, accusing GEO of violating minimum-wage laws by paying prisoners $1 a day for cleaning and maintenance work at the 1,575-bed facility. Washington’s minimum wage is $11 an hour.

In March, Tacoma had voted to block expansion of the center, citing potential violations of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama administration program that protected immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, commonly referred to as “Dreamers.” The city reversed course in May when told it conflicted with a state law that classifies the center as an “essential public facility” that can’t be blocked by local laws.

California’s statewide moratorium, which takes effect next year, covers both new private jails commissioned by ICE and new contracts by local jails to provide space for the same purpose. The state also has budgeted money next year to audit detention centers for civil rights violations and other problems, said Michael Soller, a spokesman for Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara, who supported both efforts.

“California should not be siding with companies that profit from the detention of asylum-seekers and the misery of divided families,” Lara said in an October statement when the Dignity Not Detention Act was signed into law. Some 65,000 immigrants are held by ICE annually in California, he said, citing estimates from Human Rights Watch.

Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors more restrictions on immigration, said sanctuary city policies have made it harder for federal authorities to house prisoners awaiting deportation.

“In a lot of places in the country, ICE can simply lease surplus jail beds and reimburse local jails for the cost,” Vaughan said. “But some places like Cook County [Illinois] will not hold them at all. If local jurisdictions will not hold deportable aliens in their facilities, then ICE has to have its own.” 

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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