Whitmer halts land sale for $35M private immigrant detention center

By: - February 16, 2019 12:51 am

Activist Maru Mora Villalpando leads a protest and march outside a Federal Detention Center on June 9, 2018 in SeaTac, Washington. | Karen Ducey, Getty Images

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is canceling a plan to sell state land to a company trying to build a private immigrant detention center in Michigan, the governor’s office told the Michigan Advance on Friday.

Whitmer is using her authority to halt the sale of a former state prison in Ionia, where the Virginia-based Immigration Centers of America (ICA) has proposed constructing a roughly $35 million detention facility.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announcing new environmental executive orders, Feb. 4, 2019 | Nick Manes

Under former Gov. Rick Snyder, state officials at the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority told the company it could move forward on Oct. 9 with its plan for the former Deerfield Correctional Facility, pending local and federal approval.

But Whitmer has decided to freeze that deal after several weeks of discussions with local elected officials, community leaders, civil rights groups and ICA, spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

“From that due diligence, it was determined that ICA was unable to agree to terms that guaranteed that this facility would not be used to detain adults who had been separated from their children or other family members and could not assure certain other conditions without ICE approval,” Brown said.

The Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy enacted in 2017 has resulted in children being separated from their parents at the border, sparking condemnation from immigrant and human rights groups. Recent national reports in January said that thousands more children may have been removed from their parents than was previously reported.

President Donald Trump makes a statement announcing that a deal has been reached to reopen the government through Feb. 15, January 25, 2019 | Olivier Douliery-Pool. Getty Images

“The governor believes that building more detention facilities won’t solve our immigration crisis, and she also believes that separating families doesn’t reflect our Michigan values,” Brown said. “Therefore, the governor has decided that the sale of state property in Deerfield to ICA will not move forward.

“As the governor has said before, it’s time for President Trump and Congress to work together on a bipartisan immigration reform plan that keeps communities safe, protects American jobs, and keeps families together.”

The Advance reported that Trump on Friday announced he will declare a national emergency to build the border wall with Mexico, an action that’s been panned by Democrats in Michigan and across the country.

Reversing course

Whitmer’s move reverses the state land bank review committee’s determination. Land bank Director Josh Burgett and Development Director Jim Tischler agreed with Ionia Mayor Daniel Balice and City Manager Jason Eppler that the company’s proposal met state criteria for the sale.

Josh Burgett

The Ionia City Council had not made a final resolution on the plan before the governor’s decision.

ICE gave state and local officials until March 29 to decide, after which it would be up to federal officials whether undocumented immigrants awaiting asylum and other civil cases would be detained in Michigan within the for-profit company’s custody.

ICA has detained more than 25,000 immigrants in its existing facility in Farmville, Va., according to a document the company submitted to the state land bank.

In that document, the company touts the “exemplary service” it offers to detained immigrants — including access to presentations on their legal rights, access to a law library, a “multi-media room” and “numerous gaming stations.”

The company told state land bank officials that the proposed detention facility would employ about 225 people at an average $68,000 annual salary.

The detention center would also generate millions in state and local taxes and inject an ongoing $49.8 million annual economic output, the same document said.

Muchmore’s role

Whitmer’s decision to cancel the state land sale is a marked shift from the Snyder administration.

Dennis Muchmore

The Republican former governor’s chief of staff, Dennis Muchmore, is contracted as legal counsel for ICA. He said he helped facilitate the company’s offer to buy the former Deerfield Correctional Facility for about $1.7 million. The final price was still in negotiation.

The state closed the former prison in 2009 to cut costs. It has ever since sat vacant.

Michigan doesn’t get many opportunities to sell abandoned prisons, Muchmore said, lauding the deal during a phone call with the Advance prior to Whitmer disclosing her plan to cancel the deal.

Muchmore said ICA has an excellent track record and would be a better alternative for detainees than languishing in county jails, where about 1,000 undocumented immigrants are currently held in Michigan, pending civil immigration cases.

“So the question is: Are they being appropriately and decently treated? Because they haven’t committed any crimes. They’re gonna be held one way or another. And most people believe … that ICA runs a much better, more proactive and better — in terms of medical care and detention and visitation and the access to legal counsel — than anyone else does in the country,” Muchmore said.

“At least, that’s been their record to this point. It’s a fairly substantial use of an existing prison property and it has a lot of jobs attached to it; and ICE is going to build the facility in Michigan,” Muchmore added. “They’re gonna build one in Michigan, one way or another.”

The Advance tried to contact Muchmore again Friday after Whitmer’s office confirmed her decision, but he did not return calls or an email. ICA did not immediately return telephone calls or an email Friday.

Immigrant rights groups

Immigrant rights groups in Michigan lauded Whitmer’s decision.

“Immigrant community leaders opposed expanded detention as a violation of human and civil rights and it’s heartening to see that the governor is taking action at this critical time,” said Susan Reed, managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center.

No Detention Centers in Michigan, an activist group opposed to the project, is still planning an informational meeting at an Ionia church to discuss the proposal with city and county residents on Saturday.

Members of the group have previously spoken out against the plan at an Ionia City Council meeting.

The Advance contacted local officials about their stance on the proposed detention center. Ionia City Council Member Gordon Kelley said he “conceptually” supports the center.

“There are still some things I need answers on, but conceptually I am in favor,” Kelley wrote. “I do not have ethical concerns about have the center here in Ionia, but I am willing to hear the concerns of my constituents as well as those of the greater Ionia community.”

Kim Patrick

Balice, the mayor, did not return multiple emails to the Advance. Eppler, the city manager, declined to share his position. Both sat on the land bank review committee that allowed the plan to move forward for local approval in Ionia, according to land bank spokeswoman Erica Quealy.

Deputy Mayor Kim Patrick, however, said he is morally opposed.

“At this point in time, I am opposed to the ICA detention center,” Patrick wrote in an email. “We are well known for our Free Fair. I don’t want to be known for the unfair treatment of incarcerating people simply because they are looking to improve their lot in life.”

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Michael Gerstein
Michael Gerstein

Michael Gerstein is a former Advance reporter covering the Governor's office, criminal justice and the environment.