Immigrant detention company could buy private land since Whitmer nixed plan

By: - February 19, 2019 1:25 am

Outside of a Catholic church school in Ionia, a Mother Mary statue is placed in front of a grated window near a rock with a plaque that reads, “Respect Life.” Activists against detention centers in Michigan held a meeting within these walls | Michael Gerstein

A Virginia-based company that planned to build a private immigrant detention center in Michigan may now consider buying private property after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer halted its state land sale bid, the company’s legal counsel said.

Catholic school where No Detention Centers in Michigan held a meeting following Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to nix a state land sale to Immigration Centers of America | Michael Gerstein

Whitmer, a Democrat, reversed a state land bank decision under GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder that would have sold the former Deerfield Correctional Facility in Ionia to Immigration Centers for America (ICA), as the Michigan Advance first reported on Friday.

The company planned to build a $35 million facility to house civil detainees awaiting asylum and other immigration cases.

ICA may now look to private land — a scenario in which the governor would not have authority to stop the plan, according to Dennis Muchmore, the company’s legal counsel and Snyder’s former chief of staff.

Muchmore worked with the company after it obtained preliminary approval from the state land bank in October, during Snyder’s waning days in office.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Monday she did not want to “speculate” on the possibility of ICA buying private land instead.

Gretchen Whitmer

Last week, the governor directed the land bank director to scrap the deal after discussions with local elected officials, community leaders, civil rights groups and ICA.

One of the governor’s big concerns was 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,”  Brown said.

The President 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.

Muchmore and at least one GOP lawmaker are unhappy with that decision.

State Rep. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) condemned Whitmer’s decision and said it will end up costing the state good jobs.

Thomas Albert

“Obviously, Immigration Centers of America cannot agree to a policy of catch and release,” Albert said in a statement. “Gov. Whitmer got her talking points into the press and the people I represent were collateral damage. We just lost out on millions of dollars in economic investment and hundreds of good paying jobs. I could expect this from socialists in New York City, but not in small town Ionia, Michigan.”

Muchmore said in an email that he was “obviously” upset at Whitmer’s reversal “after the company had been awarded the bid, following each and every requirement of the state, and investing thousands of dollars to meet the Land Bank parameters. It totally undermines the credibility of the Land Bank” and the state’s land bidding process, he said.

I’m sure we would consider private land,” Muchmore added. “That’s what makes the decision so baffling.”

Activists watch ICA

Michigan activists associated with a group called No Detention Centers in Michigan are already considering what they may do in that event.

About 70 activists with the group cheered Whitmer’s decision to stop the state land sale in an Ionia church on Saturday evening.

Dennis Muchmore

But the group is already preparing for future fights.

Across the nation, about 73 percent of the country’s federal immigration detainees were held in private facilities in 2016, the Associated Press reported.

“The issue is way bigger than the Ionia County detention center,” said Oscar Castaneda, an organizer with a left-leaning group called Action of Greater Lansing, which opposes immigrant detention centers. That group was involved in an event in Lansing Monday protesting Trump’s emergency declaration to build a border wall.

Castaneda has been working with other activists through No Detention Centers in Michigan, which hosted an Ionia event to meet city and county residents who share their views or have questions.

Immigrant rights groups in Michigan say that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has put out a request to build a detention center 150 miles from its Detroit field office.

“They’re gonna be held one way or another,” Muchmore previously told the Advance. “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.”

Ionia resident Tim Thompson — who also is the Ionia County Democrats’ treasurer — said he was opposed to the detention center for moral reasons.

“People shouldn’t be locked up in cages, pure and simple,” said Thompson, 60. “Yes, as a community, we could use the money that would come from this, but we just can’t allow it. They haven’t done anything wrong other than stepped over an imaginary line. It’s just morally wrong to be doing this.”

“I don’t understand it,” added Thompson’s wife, Lorrie, 58.

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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.