$35M private immigration detention center proposed in Mich.
The 166,000-square-foot facility would house immigrants detained by ICE who are being held pending administrative hearing on issues such as deportation
By Paul Egan
Detroit Free Press
LANSING, Mich. — A $35-million privately operated federal immigration detention center is being proposed for a former state prison site in Ionia, officials confirmed to the Free Press on Monday.
Immigration Centers of America, which operates a similar civil detention facility in Virginia, was the sole bidder for the former Deerfield Correctional Facility, a state prison in Ionia that closed in 2009.
The state has not yet signed off on the sale after the request for bids by the Michigan Land Bank Fast Track Authority, said Dennis Muchmore, the former chief of staff to Gov. Rick Snyder who is now a lobbyist working for the detention center company.
Among other necessary steps, the federal government still needs to issue a request for proposals for a facility to hold about 500 to 600 immigration detainees, Muchmore said.
Because it would involve only civil detention, the 166,000-square-foot facility would house immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement who have not been charged with or convicted of criminal offenses, but instead are being held pending administrative hearing on issues such as deportation.
Though Muchmore said the development could be "a long way away," a copy of the company's Oct. 1 proposal, obtained by the Free Press, said the facility expects to receive its permit late next year and open 12 months after that.
Land bank officials did not respond to emails and phone calls Monday to say how much the company offered for the former prison.
The proposal doesn't mention a purchase price but says the 600-bed facility for adult men and women would employ about 225 people directly and create tens of millions of dollars in annual economic impact through payroll, purchase of supplies and spin-off activity.
"The Deerfield site will become a major employer and taxpayer instead of an abandoned correctional facility," Russell Harper, president and CEO of Immigration Centers of America, said in a letter to the Michigan Land Bank.
President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy has significantly increased the need for immigration detention facilities.
But some other privately owned detention facilities in the U.S. have been controversial because of their treatment of detainees and because, unlike government prisons or detention centers, they are operated for profit. Allegations against facilities operated by other companies have included forced labor and medical neglect.
Muchmore was Snyder's chief of staff from 2011 through early 2016, when he joined the Lansing office of Honigman, the Detroit law firm, as head of its government relations group and registered as a lobbyist. He said Immigration Centers of America is considered "the cream of the crop" because of the quality of its $21-million detention facility in Farmville, Virginia, which opened in 2010.
Asked to comment on the proposal, Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said the "process is taking its course without the governor's influence, as it should."
Susan Reed, managing attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, based in Ypsilanti, said her organization opposes any expansion of the immigration detention system, which she said "creates tremendous hardship in the lives of the communities we serve," and is "extremely costly" compared with other effective methods of making sure people show up for immigration hearings, such as tethers or the now disbanded family case management program, which operated more like a counseling center than a prison. Those in the program had fewer restrictions on their movements and caseworkers guided them through their rights and responsibilities and helped them get lawyers for their court hearings.
According to the proposal, ICE's Detroit office needs a detention facility to hold detainees awaiting hearings related to the work its agents do. The federal government notified potential bidders of its interest in building a facility in October 2017 and is expected to release a "request for proposals" -- the next step in the process, "in the very near future," the company said.
In its proposal, the company said it had introduced unique innovations at its Virginia site, including allowing legal and family visitation 24 hours a day, plus video visitation for those unable to attend in person.
The company cooperates with a local immigrants rights group to provide detainees with monthly presentations on their legal rights, the proposal said, adding: "To our knowledge, ICA has the only facility in the country with this practice."
Ionia City Manager Jason Eppler said buildings are deteriorating at Deerfield and an adjacent former state prison, Riverside Correctional Facility. Both are becoming eyesores and as state properties they don't generate revenue for the city through the tax rolls, he said.
According to the proposal, the company would demolish most of the existing buildings on the 47-acre site, at a cost of $600,000.
Eppler said If the state gives the green light to the sale and the company opts to proceed, the Ionia City Council would consider the plans, which would require a zoning designation.
Ionia has been a "corrections friendly" city for more than 100 years, from a state prison perspective, he said. The city is also home to the Michigan Reformatory, Ionia Correctional Facility and Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility.
"I'm glad to see the state identified the Deerfield property as surplus, wanting to put it into a use," Eppler said.
Ionia Mayor Dan Balice could not be reached for comment Monday.
Public Act 334 of 2018, signed into law by Snyder on Sept. 5, authorized the Department of Technology, Management and Budget totransfer Deerfield, along with two other shuttered state prisons -- Pugsley in Kingsley, and Tuscola in Caro -- to the state land bank for development.
In 2017, the Trump administration called for five new immigration detention facilities to be built and operated by private prison operators, National Public Radio reported in November.
At that time, ICE already had spent more than $2 billion on private detention of immigrants, NPR said.
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