Immigrant Detention Centers Face Opposition

The immigration crackdown of recent years has been possible, in part, because the Bush administration has greatly expanded its detention space. This is set to continue in next year's budget, with new centers planned in several states. But some are meeting local resistance.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

The federal government doubled its detention space to more than 33,000 beds in its recent crackdown on illegal immigration. Officials say this has restored integrity to immigration enforcement. Many illegal immigrants used to be let go simply because there was no place to hold them. But as this expansion continues, it is meeting resistance in some places. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has this final report in our series on the overburdened immigration enforcement system.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: In the middle of Virginia, past a metal recycling plant outside Farmville, a hole has been cleared in some woods for a new immigration detention center.

Mr. JEFF WINDER: Okay, they've got the entrance blocked off with tape today.

(Soundbite of machines)

LUDDEN: Jeff Winder only learned of this center after Farmville City Council approved it, but this community organizer and his colleagues at People United are doing what they can to try to stop it.

Mr. WINDER: Well, we see a real human rights crisis by the own admission of the council members of Farmville. The people who are going to be incarcerated here haven't been convicted of any crime.

LUDDEN: Winder is bothered by a series of recent deaths of immigrants in detention, including two at another jail here in Farmville. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, defends its medical care standards. But last month, the agency canceled its contract with the Rhode Island center when its own review found a Chinese immigrant there died after medical neglect.

Mr. WINDER: The community is left with none of the revenue from these detainees and only the reputation of being the place where the scandal happened. We'd like the people of Farmville to know that's what they're signing on for, that that's what they're risking here.

LUDDEN: Winder and his colleagues head back to town and set off down Main Street hoping to rally opposition.

Mr. WINDER: Hi, how are you?

Unidentified Woman: Good, how are you?

LUDDEN: In one store, a woman wearing a flag pin and reading glasses is sympathetic. She worries the small town could be overwhelmed by the potentially 2,000-bed center. And she doesn't believe officials who say there won't be any women or children held here. Her husband pipes up that the Obama administration may soften immigration policies. Then, he worries the center would become just a regular prison. Still, neither wants to speak out or sign Winder's petition. So, he leaves them flyers and says he'll check back. Across the street, the attitude is altogether different.

Mr. THOMAS PAIRET (City Council Member): I can't see it being anything but a good thing for the local area.

LUDDEN: Thomas Pairet runs a sporting goods store and is a city council member who voted for the immigrant detention center. He says he can't discuss details of the deal, but he's happy to speak as a resident.

Mr. PAIRET: I'm looking at it from a standpoint of economics. I mean, gosh, the money that it's going to bring into the local economy is just astronomical.

LUDDEN: To be precise, according to the private contractor who will manage the center, it will bring in 300 well-paying jobs and earn Farmville more than $700,000 a year in taxes and fees. Pairet also says no one should worry about public safety. He spoke to former employees at the regional jail that already houses immigration detainees. They told him…

Mr. PAIRET: These types of people are probably the nicest, that they don't consider them criminals under any circumstances. They say they're just like you and I, other than the fact that they've come to United States to try to live their dream, and they didn't go through the proper channels of doing it.

LUDDEN: In any case, Pairet says it's federal policy that's driving demand to detain immigrants and few seem to think anything the Obama administration does will change that. Julie Myers Wood, the former head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says her agency's crackdown has put hundreds of thousands of criminal immigrants in local, state and federal jails. When their sentences are up, they'll be transferred to immigration detention to await deportation.

Ms. JULIE MYERS WOOD (Former Head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement): Regardless of whether it has a lot of appeal, the immigration detention system is stretched. And because of the number of criminal aliens, at some point, you know, there's going to be a need for additional beds.

LUDDEN: That would be good news for the company that's building the Farmville center. Their plan is to build detention space for 10,000 immigrants across the country by 2012.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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