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Immigration Prison

Detainees at the Willacy County Immigration Detention Center in Raymondville, Texas, play basketball in 2006. A private prison company that operated the problem-plagued Willacy County facility from 2006 to 2011 has proposed building an immigration detention facility in Evanston.

On a June evening the proposed site for an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement jail near Evanston held little more than blooming sagebrush.

Trucks roaring to and from the Utah state line on I-80 were little more than background noise atop the bluffs above Bear River State Park. A sparrow sang its lilting tune and a snake slithered across the red dirt road.

No marker informed visitors that private prison company Management Training Corporation hoped to lease the Uinta County property and profit from immigration enforcement there. Nothing in the landscape hinted at its role in the divide growing among residents over MTC’s proposal.

Roads and trails on the bluffs and in the park make for pleasant walking, long-time Evanston resident Kayne Pyatt told the three-man Uinta County Board of County Commissioners at a meeting on June 5. But MTC’s facility would ruin those walks for her, she said.

“Walk somewhere else,” growled a facility proponent.

It was a hyper-local point of contention in a heated debate that spans Wyoming’s uncomfortable history with internment camps; state and local economic development; national immigration policy; racial discrimination; corporate responsibility; the appropriate roles of the public and private sectors and Evanston’s image in the eyes of the world.

The machinery of federal contracting moves slowly and ICE, MTC and Uinta County are far from inking a deal to build the jail. But even in its early stages the proposal has brought the tensions of a divided nation to bear on this town of about 12,000.

As the Trump administration employs increasingly aggressive enforcement tactics — most recently sparking outrage by separating migrant children from their parents as a means of dissuading would-be border crossers — positions are growing more entrenched nationwide and conversations more difficult.

If Evanston, nearly 1,000 miles from the Mexican border, eventually receives a detention center it will only be one cog in a sprawling system designed to remove migrants already settled or settling in the country. The center would house undocumented immigrants who are scooped up by ICE agents in cities and towns around the West.

But in Evanston, proponents of the jail are tired of the moralizing and accusations of racism they hear from those opposed to private prisons and immigration crackdowns, several said. Most supporters said their motivation is economic not ideological and it is opponents that are politically motivated. But concerns about unchecked immigration bolster their support for the jail and the jobs they hope it will bring their town.

Those who want the facility see a chance for high-paying jobs in a town where the most available work seems to be in fast-food restaurants and service businesses that line I-80 which splits the town. They chafe at opposition they say is coming largely from elsewhere in the state. “It’s our county,” said commissioner Wendell Fraughton.

“Before it seemed like Uinta County … a lot of the state didn’t know we were in Wyoming,” he said. “When things are tough they’re not here.”

And times are tough now. Following the public hearing commissioners retreated to a conference room to grapple with a $3 million gap between revenues and expenditures in their county budget.

Economic data and resident anecdotes reveal that Evanston has struggled in the most recent bust, perhaps more than the rest of the still recovering state. Uinta County has lost population every year since 2000 — with the exception of 2006 to 2009. Average incomes in the county roughly kept pace with those of the rest of Wyoming until recent years, when the county began to be left behind. From 2015 to 2017, the average salary in Uinta county was $4,000-5,000 lower than the Wyoming average. Unemployment in the county has also consistently been higher than the statewide average.

Opponents who spoke at the meeting all said they were from Evanston, though some also claimed affiliation with WyoSayNo, a statewide campaign that has sprung up against the prison.

“It’s not a racist town,” Lubia Olivas told WyoFile. Olivas is a Mexican-American woman and longtime Evanston resident who was brought into the United States illegally as a child but is now a U.S. Citizen.

“But it’s becoming one,” she said. “We’re all being divided due to this facility.”

Olivas said she is opposing the facility on behalf of Evanston’s Hispanic residents, some of whom are in the country illegally.

“Why would [MTC] want to pick here?” she asked. “Why are they looking at our small town?”

A long road and a checkered past

In October of 2017 ICE put out a Request for Information, seeking possible sites for facilities to hold “criminal aliens and other immigration violators.” ICE labels the prison-like facilities “detention centers.”

In Wyoming, that semantic distinction matters. As a “civil detention center” and not a prison, the proposed facility avoids state statute that would require a majority vote from Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials for approval. As a detention center, however, the Uinta County commissioners alone can decide whether to proceed. The three men support it unanimously and vocally.

The civil-detention terminology is backed by Gov. Matt Mead and the Wyoming Attorney General, but has raised the hackles of some state lawmakers who want to see the facility regulated under state prison statutes.

The October RFI sought information on sites within 180 miles of four major metropolitan areas, including Salt Lake City. The ICE request said a facility to serve Salt Lake City would need to hold between 200 and 600 detained immigrants. Evanston is roughly 84 miles from a federal immigration court in the Utah capital, where local politics have turned against the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown. Uinta County Commissioner Craig Welling told WyoFile in October that Evanston’s politics had emerged as a draw for MTC and perhaps ICE.

Evanston isn’t the only place where MTC is seeking to capitalize on ICE’s call for beds and cells. The company is pushing a very similar proposal in Hopkins Park, Illinois — a town with a population of around 580 according to 2014 census data. Hopkins Park is about 70 miles south of Chicago, another city included in ICE’s Request for Information.

The proposal is so similar, in fact, that documents obtained by WyoFile show a resolution passed by the Hopkins Park city council to support MTC that mirrors the language of a resolution passed by the Uinta County Commissioners.

“WHEREAS: The proposal by Management & Training Corporation (MTC) and its partners is for a state-of-the-art detention facility with an aesthetically pleasing design that will integrate with and not adversely impact nearby properties,” read the Hopkins Park council’s resolutions. The same language was included in the Uinta County Commission’s resolution.

“WHEREAS: The project will result in significant tax revenues in the Village of Hopkins Park immediately and in the future,” read the Illinois resolution. The same sentence was in the Wyoming resolution as well, but with “Village of Hopkins Park” replaced by “City of Evanston and Uinta County.” Language about “numerous construction jobs in the near term and hundreds of permanent well-paying jobs upon completion” was also duplicated.

But while MTC works various locations, ICE’s Request for Information has not yet been followed up with a Request for Proposals, the next step in the federal bidding process. MTC is waiting for the RFP to submit its proposal, and the county commission is waiting on MTC to successfully secure federal approval before it begins structuring a contract. Carl Rusnok, a regional spokesperson for ICE, told WyoFile he did not know the status of the RFP and would need to check with colleagues. He had not responded to two subsequent emails as of press time.

Erik South, the chairman of the Uinta County Commission, says he doesn’t expect quick action from ICE.

South and Welling recently toured MTC facilities in New Mexico and California, a trip they said was paid for with county funds. On their visit, commissioners said they saw clean, professional facilities with tight oversight from the federal government. The tour assuaged any concerns they had and left them with the impression that MTC is professional and well run, they said. “They have a good track record,” Fraughton said.

A city council resolution from Hopkins Park, Illinois, where MTC is also proposing an ICE detention center, mirrors language in Uinta County’s resolution supporting the MTC proposal there.

The New Mexico facility had a harder time passing muster for an Office of Inspector General report in December of last year. The report raised questions about “the protection of detainees’ rights, their humane treatment, and the provision of a safe and healthy environment” at four private immigration jails, including the one in Otero. More concerns have been raised about MTC operations at other facilities as well, as reported by the Casper Star-Tribune and New York Times.

MTC contests the OIG report, a company spokesman told WyoFile in January. Independent audits have produced positive reports about treatment of the detainees, Issa Arnita said.

On their visit the commissioners were able to speak with both guards and inmates, Welling told meeting attendees. They were left impressed by the available medical care and the cleanliness, they said. At an MTC jail along the Mexican border in Imperial County, California, they spoke with local government officials who said area residents were employed at the facility and that most job openings received local applicants.

Most inmates seemed content with their lot, Welling said. He pushed back on suggestions from opponents that the company would have cleaned and prepared for a planned visit by the commissioners.

“We could look through windows and see folks that they could not see us,” Welling said. “I would say between 65 and 75 percent of the people we were looking at had smiles on their face. Now that couldn’t have been orchestrated.”

South told WyoFile it’s naive to expect perfection from a company in MTC’s business.

“If you think there’s not going to be problems at a prison or detention center,” he said, using the terms interchangeably, “you’re smoking a lot of dope.”

It’s a job

As with most small-town public meetings, many in the crowded commissioners’ chambers knew one another. Still, interruptions and shouted comments from opponents and proponents alike were frequent enough to earn attendees a rebuke from Uinta County Attorney Loretta Howieson.

“Can we please comply with public meetings rules and speak at the mic” she asked as chatter peaked. “So that there is some semblance of organization at this meeting.”

The first speaker was Kortney Clark, a former teacher from Evanston who said she was working with WyoSayNo.

“I find it strange that Utah will not do business with this Utah-based company but Wyoming will,” she said. MTC is headquartered in Salt Lake City.

Housing the facility would be “morally wrong” and could be “an economic disaster,” she said.

Clark asked commissioners what would happen to the facility if national immigration policy changes and demand for immigration jail beds softens. She asked if the county could be liable for lawsuits filed against MTC by ill-treated prisoners and she asked what kind of tax revenue the county had been promised by the company.

“Those are some pretty out-there questions,” Welling said.

If Clark foresaw economic disaster, proponents said they saw what might be the only way to stave one off.

“For the last six years I’ve spent my time in Salt Lake City because there aren’t a lot of good jobs here,” said Johnny Pentz. “I will be one of the first to apply [for an MTC job] if you do get it in.”

“It’s a job,” said another proponent. “What do we have here? We have four Subways. We have more fast food restaurants than a big city.”

In a letter read by the county clerk, the head of a local engineering firm said his company was down to three staff, from a high of 108 and an average of 20 to 30 people. “It is fair to say that the current economic conditions of Uinta County are represented by current staff levels and workload,” Brent Sanders of Cook-Sanders Associates wrote.

The MTC facility could drive both public and private infrastructure needs that could benefit his business and others like it, Sanders wrote.

“Those who say ‘we are better than this,’ what do you offer as an alternative?” he asked. “Just waiting and hoping will not provide any opportunity to those of us who depend on the private sector to generate business opportunity. For those that come to protest from outside the area, will you remain here to put the same effort forward in finding an alternative to this opportunity? Or, will you walk away once your political agenda is met to never give a second thought to the impact your outside influence has on the area?”

In a state where opposition to a heavy-handed federal government is reliably popular, Sanders seemed to turn the storied-Wyoming value of local control on its head.

“I do not feel it appropriate for a county commission to engage in a political debate about policies and practices that are approved by the federal government,” he wrote. If opponents dislike detention policy they should protest in Cheyenne or D.C., not against the facility proposed for their town, he wrote.

Several proponents told WyoFile many jail opponents are retirees, and thus don’t need the jobs it would provide.

Tara Pentz finished her testimony in favor of the jail with a verbal sneer: “I don’t have a lot of time,” she said. “I have to go back to work.” She then walked out, followed by her mother and a smattering of applause.

“It’s a political thing and it’s unfortunate,” Kent Anderson said of the opposition. “We cannot recognize that we do have an immigration problem that does have to be dealt with, and when you break the law there’s consequences.”

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The idea that immigration law needed to be enforced was echoed time and again. Uinta County residents can’t change the fact that economic conditions south of the border drive tens of thousands of migrants each year to seek a better life and risk an illegal border crossing, they said. But the community can benefit from ICE’s work to send some of them back.

“So what if you’re here illegally and you get caught?” Kent’s brother Russ Anderson asked, speaking to WyoFile in the auto-mechanic shop he runs the day after the meeting. “You’re illegal.”

Anderson supports people coming to the U.S. seeking a better life, but he wants them to abide by the law and assimilate into the culture. He described an immigrant couple coming into his shop and needing their 6-year-old daughter to translate.

“How am I supposed to do good work?” he asked. “I don’t have a problem with people coming here but damn you can’t just…” he trailed off.

“It benefits everybody in the whole U.S.,” Anderson said of the proposed jail. “The better the immigration policy and the better we can handle illegals in this country the better.”

Jim Hissong, the Human Services Coordinator for Uinta County, echoed that sentiment during the meeting. “I don’t care why they’re here,” he said. “I don’t care what they’ve done when they’ve arrived, I don’t care … how many taxes they’ve paid. They’re still here and they’ve broken the law.”

Proponents also said the county could ensure humane treatment of detainees, and they downplayed current immigration enforcement tactics. They spoke of people being held merely until their status could be determined. Tara Pentz, who said her grandfather came to the country illegally before eventually gaining citizenship, suggested detention could be the first step for undocumented immigrants to seek citizenship.

“These people need help too, they’re trying to escape a prison down there as well,” she said, referring to Latin America. “They’re trying to get to a [legal] situation and sometimes they just don’t know that first step and this detention center is for them to have an option.”

Detention centers operate more as clearing centers for deportation than avenues to pursue residency, according to immigration lawyers. There are ways for a detained migrant to stop a deportation — the law allows exceptions for asylum, unusual hardship and victims of crimes. But doing so is difficult even with legal representation — a service only 14 percent of detainees receive, according to a 2015 study of 1.2 million deportation cases published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. The drought was “particularly severe” for courts in rural areas, the report found.

Hissong, the human services coordinator, asked opponents to leave value judgments out of the private-prison and immigration enforcement discussion.

“Please don’t make this anti-Hispanic because it’s not,” he said. “I don’t ever want to hear again that just because myself or others may be in support of something that somehow we’re immoral.”

Pyatt, the woman who worried about her walks, spoke shortly after him. “I’m not going to accuse you of being immoral, Jim,” she said.

But, she said, “[Evanston] is my home, and I really don’t want my home to be associated with a detention center slash prison. And I know we need jobs, we need jobs desperately but I think there’s other ways we can bring jobs to Evanston.”

She cited technology and renewable energy as potential opportunities.

“We should be reaching out to those companies rather than one that’s fraught with so much conflict,” she said. “That’s tearing us apart.”

Nine percent of Uinta County residents are Hispanic, according to July, 2017 census data. Olivas, the longtime resident who first came to the U.S. illegally, said she believes there may be several hundred undocumented families and individuals in Evanston alone.

Many of them work the minimum-wage jobs proponents cited as evidence of Evanston’s poor opportunities, she said.

An ICE facility would drive undocumented Latin American immigrants out of Evanston — potentially more people than the facility would attract, Olivas said. “They’re going to be in fear of being picked up at any moment.” Already, she said, “they’re afraid to even go to the store.”

The suggestion sparked quick rebuttals from proponents at the meeting, who argued ICE would fill the jail with undocumented immigrants from other communities elsewhere.

Anderson, the auto mechanic, was one who dismissed that idea. “You’re not going to have ICE agents running around Evanston, Wyoming,” he said.

ICE agents are a relatively rare presence in town today, Uinta County Sheriff Doug Matthews told WyoFile. “They’re not out patrolling,” he said. “We’re not out patrolling [for illegal immigrants].” His agency works hard to make sure the immigrant community knows they can report crimes without fear of having their immigration status challenged, he said.

If someone is arrested for a criminal offense and has immigration charges against them or is undocumented, ICE agents may come up from Colorado to collect them, he said.

“There’s more of a hoopla of anticipation than anything really going on,” Matthews said.

Deportations had doubled and ICE arrests were up 20 percent in Wyoming and Colorado, by the end of President Trump’s first year in office according to a report by Wyoming Public Media. The two states are lumped together in ICE’s databanks.

The construction of a for-profit immigration jail could surely alter the character and future of Evanston. To both Olivas and Russ Anderson, who see surfacing divisions in the community, it’s possible the proposal already has.

“It’s not like ‘hey we’re going to put in a new recreation center, what do you guys think?’” Olivas said.

Anderson did agree with Olivas on one thing. MTC’s proposal is widening and exposing political and social rifts in Evanston.

“It’s definitely brought out the divisions,” he said. “They’re not going to sway my opinion and I’m not going to sway theirs.”

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