by Jeff Winder, Guest Contributor

Changing immigration enforcement policy has left federal authorities struggling to cope with rapidly rising numbers of detainees. A controversial partnership in Farmville, Va. proposes to address the crisis with a 1,040-bed, for-profit immigrant detention center.

During 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted raids of historic proportions, arresting hundreds of undocumented workers at a time in Iowa, California, Mississippi and most recently, South Carolina. Virginia has not been immune to this trend. 2008 saw a sharp increase in ICE activity with raids in Amelia, Harrisonburg, northern Virginia and the high-profile arrest of 33 construction workers at the nearly completed Richmond federal courthouse.

ICE, a federal agency hastily created under the Department of Homeland Security in the wake of 9/11, is floundering as they try to cope with this influx, creating dangerous conditions for those detained. Recent investigations by the Washington Post and New York Times thoroughly document a pattern of medical neglect in ICE detention that has resulted in dozens of preventable deaths.

A partnership between ICE, the city of Farmville and a private company proposes to address this crisis with a new 1,000-plus bed immigrant detention center in the small, southside Virginia town. Immigration Centers of America - Farmville (ICA) plans to break ground on Oct. 15 and be operational by June of 2009.

Information about ICA and their qualifications to run a detention facility has been withheld from the public. The company, owned by two real estate developers and the CEO of a company that sells industrial mixers to bakeries, does not have a web site.

According to the Virginia Corporation Commission website, they first filed in June of 2007. This was just one month before the first of two grants was requested from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, a state-administered fund whose stated purpose is "to make payments to farmers to compensate for the decline of tobacco quotas and to promote economic growth and development in tobacco-dependent communities." The fund awarded the projects two grants totaling nearly $600,000 to pay for water, sewer, roads, parking lots and fencing.

Commission spokesperson Tim Pfohl said the grants were awarded based on a formula that projects how quickly a community will "recapture" the grant monies in the form of tax revenues. When questioned on the qualifications of ICA to manage this facility, he said, "Our job is not to weigh their ability to do the job. That is for the federal folks to figure out. We accept the receipt of a federal contract as proof of their qualifications."

But during an Oct. 2 interview, ICE spokesperson Richard Rocha denied that there is any commitment yet by the federal government to house prisoners at the Farmville facility. "We have only signed a transportation agreement with Farmville so far," he said. "We have not committed to using any facility if it was built. We are, however, working with the city to ensure that any facility built would be to ICE standards." When asked about the qualifications of ICA to run the facility, Rocha said, "It would be premature to talk about staffing or process, but our only contract is with the city of Farmville. You will have to talk to the town manager."

Gerald Spates, Farmville town manager, had this to say about ICA: "Well, I'll grant you, they are new at this, but they have been trying to get this project going for five years. The key is in the highly qualified personnel that they will bring in." He suggested contacting ICA directly but also agreed to respond to a series of question about the background of ICA, the roster of upper-level employees that they plan to bring in and the financial arrangements by Oct. 7. He failed to provide any of this information and has not returned phone calls since then.

An unidentified spokesperson at the offices of ICA declined to answer any questions and said that all information about the plans would have to come from Gerald Spates. A call to real estate developer and partner in ICA Warren Coleman resulted in this statement, "We have a policy of not giving any information about this project. All of that has to come from ICE."

"We've been hearing horror stories about detainees being put into prison with other criminals when all they have done is be here without documentation. Our goal is to keep them safe," Spates said. "But I want to be honest with you. We do stand to gain financially from this."

During a public meeting in Farmville, ICA spokesperson Ken Newsome projected that at 85 percent capacity the facility will generate $322,000 annually in fees for the city in addition to an estimated $450,000 in tax revenue for Farmville and Prince Edward County. According to the Washington Post, if the facility does run at the projected capacity, ICA stands to gross $20 million in federal tax dollars annually.

Privately-run immigrant detention centers of this type have been plagued by scandal, lawsuits and controversy. The private-prison watchdog group Grassroots Leadership has documented a pattern of abuses. They cite examples including a center in Elizabeth, N.J. that was shut down temporarily when immigrants were awarded $2.5 million in damages after an investigation showed that poorly trained guards served rotting food and physically and mentally abused prisoners. ICE turned the facility over to Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), despite this group also having a documented history of abuses in its facilities. In March of last year, nearly 1,000 immigrant prisoners in the 1,500-bed facility run by CCA in Lumpkin, Ga. went on a hunger strike protesting conditions including lack of medical care.

Private companies like ICA profit from inefficiency in the immigrant detention system. A recent article by the Washington Post documents immigrants languishing in ICE custody for months even after signing a voluntary deportation order. This means more days of space "purchased" from companies like ICA at taxpayer expense.

The demand for these spaces is at an all-time high with the recent increase in ICE raids, and all indications are that it will continue to rise. Under the Secure Communities plan, ICE will be expanding enforcement efforts and initiating deportation proceedings against any noncitizen, documented or not, who is arrested.

Viable alternatives to immigrant incarceration do exist at a fraction of the cost. With their Appearance Assistance Program, the Vera Institute for Justice achieved a 93 percent appearance rate in court including final appearances at a cost of $12 a day. ICA's $63 dollar per day rate is at the low end of the range of per diem charges in the region where Alexandria tops the list at $113 daily.

Shenandoah Valley community organizer Patrick Lincoln questions the role of corporate lobbyists in setting immigration policy. "The criminalization of immigrants is about feeding a profit-driven prison system," he said. "It's no coincidence that alarm about immigration has mirrored a national decrease in crime, a slow-down in the growth of the prison system and a shrinking in the profits of companies like the Corrections Corporation of America."

Community activists express concerns about the impact plans for the prison are having on the immigrant community in Virginia. Prince William County is the most noteworthy in a series of new state and local level laws that target immigrants. Despite vigorous community opposition, the county's board of supervisors unanimously passed a resolution that denies social services to immigrants and increase powers of local law enforcement officers to inquire into immigration status. This trend, along with the increase in ICE raids, has helped to create a climate of fear among immigrants and resulted in many families leaving the area.

"For a lot of the people I have talked to this new prison is the last straw," said community activist Sue Frankel-Streit, speaking of her involvement with the Louisa Pan-American Friendship Committee. The Louisa County, Va. group was started by Latino immigrants who met at an English class. They work to dispel myths about immigration by hosting dinners at local churches where immigrants and citizens can get to know each other. "Knowing that a 1,000-bed immigrant prison is opening just 40 miles from here is causing people to think maybe it is time to leave this country," she said. "It disgusts me that we treat people this way."

"We are seeing people who have already been hurt by our economic policies victimized again," said Teresa Stanley of the Catholic advocacy group Sowers of Justice. "These people are only trying to work to support their families. They contribute hundreds of millions to the Virginia economy and they are being locked up so that corporations can reap a profit." This was a reference to a study (pdf) released this year by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis that found the annual tax contribution of undocumented workers in Virginia to be over $400 million.

As an increasingly popular immigrant destination and home to some of the most repressive local immigrant ordinances in the country, Virginia is often in the national spotlight. "We want this facility to be a model that other localities can use," said Spates. For better or worse, it does appear that the fate of this facility will be an indication of how communities will respond to immigration during the years to come.

Jeff Winder is a regional organizer with The People United, a network of people working for justice in Virginia and surrounding areas. For more information on regional opposition to the Farmville detention center plan, visit the group's website.

(Photo from ICE website)