BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The "tent city" that became the nation's largest immigration detention center amid a George W. Bush administration vow to crack down on illegal entry is losing its immigration detainees and will become a federal prison for convicted criminal immigrants, officials confirmed Thursday.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Nina Pruneda said the agency is making plans to relocate about 1,000 detainees from Raymondville's Willacy Detention Center and reassign some 99 ICE employees to a location elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley.
"ICE will use other local facilities that the San Antonio Field Office contracts with," she said.
Pruneda's statement followed local news reports that Centerville, Utah-based Management and Training Corp., the private company under contract to manage the Center, had laid off about 110 employees.
An MTC spokeswoman didn't return phone calls requesting information, but forwarded a corporate news release announcing a 10-year, $532 million contract to house Federal Bureau of Prisons inmates at the site.
Willacy County Sheriff Larry Spence said local officials hope the new contract will restore the lost jobs and bring promised revenue to the county.
The first of what became 10 Kevlar domes went up in a whirlwind of construction in summer 2006, just in time for then-Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to proclaim an end to the bed shortage blamed for the so-called "catch and release" of non-Mexican immigrants, many of them Central Americans, caught in the country illegally.
While Mexican detainees are routinely escorted back to Mexico under "voluntary departure" arrangements that don't require court action, non-Mexicans often were given a "notice to appear" at an immigration court and released into the streets. Few made their court appearances.
An expansion to the facility was announced in 2007, with county officials anticipating a continuous population of 2,000 to 3,000 providing a per-head cut of revenue to the county.
But the numbers disappointed, Spence said.
"The ICE population's been decreasing little by little," he said. "It's a 3,000 bed facility and they basically failed to keep it full. ... In the long run (converting it to a prison) is going to be better for Willacy County."
Starting from its round-the-clock construction, the detention center was touted as a job maker for Raymondville, a city that hadn't recovered from the 1970s farm labor movements and the loss of cut-and-sew textile plant jobs to Mexico.
But detainees, immigration attorneys, and human rights advocates said conditions at the center were subpar - ICE at one point confirmed meal worms found in the food.
Many of the detainees were Caribbean immigrants sent to the deep South Texas facility from the East Coast, and the government was accused of deliberately housing them as far as possible from their families, attorneys and other supporters.
It was part of an ICE detention system plagued with reports of detainees dying for lack of medical care and hunger strikes that broke out among detainees protesting their treatment.
ICE Director John Morton in August of 2009 said he'd inherited an unwieldy detention system that had ballooned to more than 35,000 beds. He pledged an overhaul to a more "civil" system that included having facilities "in areas that make operational sense, that make sense for visitation from attorneys and families."
That overhaul started with removing detained families from the prison-like T. Don Hutto center north of Austin.
Pruneda couldn't immediately say whether the promised overhaul played a role in the reduction of the Willacy detainee population.
Bureau of Prisons spokesman Chris Burke said the new MTC contract was for 3,174 beds for "criminal aliens," meaning people who have been convicted of crimes in federal court and also have immigration issues.
Immigration detainees have only outstanding immigration violations, though they may previously have been convicted and served time for crimes.
Burke said it was unclear whether the domes would remain, though the contract calls for MTC to be ready to receive inmates within 120 days.
"I don't think we'll have a problem filling those beds," he said.
About 1,000 detainees from Raymondville's Willacy Detention Center will be moved to a location elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley.