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ICE needs jail space in Midwest, but communities resist

By Jessie Higgins
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Elkhart County, Ind., residents protest a detention center for undocumented immigrants proposed in 2017. Photo courtesy of Coalition Against the Elkhart County Immigrant Detention Center
Elkhart County, Ind., residents protest a detention center for undocumented immigrants proposed in 2017. Photo courtesy of Coalition Against the Elkhart County Immigrant Detention Center

EVANSVILLE, Ind., Aug. 14 (UPI) -- In the Midwest, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is struggling to find enough jail space to detain the growing number of immigrants who have been arrested.

The agency needs a detention facility in the region, officials have said. But it hasn't found a community that will let it build one. Despite their strong support for the Trump administration's immigration policies, Midwestern communities mount fierce resistance whenever ICE proposes new prisons.

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In 2017, the agency revealed three counties in which it would consider building new, for-profit facilities near its Chicago office. Two of those communities have rejected the proposals -- Elkhart County, Ind., and Hopkins Park, Ill. Residents in Newton County, Ind., have organized opposition.

This is the second time ICE has searched for a location near Chicago. In 2010, the agency considered two places in Illinois and two in Indiana. Each community turned them away.

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Multiple immigrant rights groups follow ICE's progress, and quickly move to organize communities where detention centers are proposed. These groups want the government to stop detaining undocumented immigrants going through deportation proceedings. They hope that blocking ICE from expanding its detention system will help that policy change.

Most of these communities, however, do not share that goal.

"In some of these communities there is indifference, or even outright hostility toward immigrants," said Fred Tsao, a senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. "People oppose these proposals for any number of reasons, and they're not all humanitarian concerns."

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Tsao has spent years helping Midwestern towns fight for-profit detention facilities. Activists do find support from like-minded people in all of the communities, he said. But they must also make some unlikely allies. In some places, Trump supporters who want to see a border wall have stood in protest alongside immigrant rights activists -- or immigrants themselves.

This divide was especially pronounced in Elkhart County, Ind., about two hours east of Chicago, where the for-profit prison company CoreCivic proposed building ICE a 1,200-bed facility last year.

"Elkhart County voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, so CoreCivic thought the people there would support it," said Richard Aguirre, an immigrant activist and administrator at Elkhart County's Goshen College.

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But the county is also more than 15 percent Latino, and in Goshen, Ind. -- the county seat -- that percentage is closer to 30.

Elkhart County is home to a booming recreational vehicle manufacturing industry, which supplies more jobs than the county can fill. Latino immigrants fill that void, Aguirre said. Elkhart's economy relies on immigrant labor.

As news of the proposed detention center spread, locals began to consider the effect such a facility would have on the immigrant workforce. Such a facility would bring a strong ICE presence to the small town, sending a clear message to the Latino community.

"I believe that if it had been built here, many of the immigrants would have left, even the legal residents," Aguirre said. "They wouldn't want to be in a community where ICE has a constant presence."

The results of that would be devastating, he said. Without labor to sustain the RV manufacturing industry, companies could leave Goshen, taking the community's economic well-being with them.

With the help of activist groups, it didn't take Aguirre long to whip up strong opposition for the center. Local government leaders voiced their disapproval, as did multiple churches and business leaders across the county.

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Within a few months, CoreCivic withdrew its proposal.

"CoreCivic made an assessment to determine the suitability of the site in Elkhart County, Ind.," CoreCivic spokesman Rodney King told UPI. "Our assessment led us to the decision not to pursue the site further at this time. For competitive reasons, we do not elaborate on our assessment process."

That leaves only one site remaining of ICE's 2017 proposals -- Newton County, Ind.

The for-profit prison company GEO Group proposed building a facility there, according to ICE. Newton County commissioners said the company has not communicated with them about the proposal, and GEO Group did not return UPI's requests for comment.

About an hour and a half south of Chicago, Newton County is much smaller than Elkhart, and more rural. There are immigrants in the county who work at local dairy farms, but they're not very visible. And, like Elkhart County, most Newton residents voted for Trump.

"As we fight this, we're not going to focus so much on immigrant rights," said Ryan Farrar, a Goshen resident who is helping organize the resistance. "If we get into that, it's going to divide us, because it's Trump's policy. That's probably going to be our biggest challenge."

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So far, it's not stopped Newton residents from turning out to oppose the facility. In late July, hundreds of residents gathered at a local church to discuss the prospect. Aguirre was there, as was Tsao, and other immigrant activists.

"There were people there who were against it not from a moral standpoint, but because of the impact it would have on their property values and the impact to the community," said Julián Lazalde, the civic engagement and policy analyst at the National Immigrant Justice Center. "There were a couple vocal people concerned about people escaping, and that person harming someone in the local community. It took some of us a little aback."

If, like the other communities, Newton County rejects the proposed detention center, ICE will have to continue its hunt for a location.

In the meantime, ICE contracts with county jails to hold immigrants undergoing deportation proceedings. Those jails are scattered across the region, sometimes hundreds of miles from where the immigrant was arrested, and where they will have their court hearing.

"ICE has identified a need for an immigration detention facility within the greater-Chicago area," the agency said in a statement. "This proposed facility is part of the agency's long-term nationwide effort to reform the current immigration detention system by improving the conditions of confinement, and by locating detainees closer to where they are apprehended so that they can be near their families, attorneys, community resources and the ICE Field Office."

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