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Ionia County Board of Commissioners declines to vote on for-profit immigrant detention facility

Photo courtesy Donald Tong, Pexels

Immigrant advocates and area residents are relieved that the Ionia County board of commissioners decided not to address a proposed immigrant detention facility. After taking the subject off the agenda for their last meeting, the chair decided not to take it up in the future. Immigrant Centers of America (ICA) was seeking their approval to construct the building to house immigrants fighting deportation proceedings.

“Ionia is known for two things:  the Ionia Free Fair and the prisons,” said area resident, Timothy Thompson. “The Fair is a reason that people want to come to Ionia, but it is with us for only two weeks a year.  The prisons are a reason to stay away and they are here year-round.  Why would we want to add to this negative view of our community?”

Last year, ICA tried to establish another detention facility in the rural community East of Grand Rapids but their offer to purchase the Deerfield correctional facility was rejected by Gov. Whitmer. This time around however, they won’t need state approval since it would be built on private property.

“People who are pursuing their dreams of citizenship and fighting their immigration cases should be home with their families, not locked behind bars,” said Monica Andrade, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “Michiganders don’t want privatized mass incarceration that tears families apart in order for big corporations to maximize profits. ICE’s detention system and practices already suffer from broken practices which will be ingrained in the expansion of this facility and will further jeopardize the lives and civil rights of those detained.”

For some reason, ICA seems fixated on Ionia as the location for their next project. Perhaps that’s because by law, people taken into custody in Detroit by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must be held within 150 miles. Ionia is 143 miles away. Not only would a new prison anywhere in Michigan make it easier for ICE to tear families apart, one so far away would also make it harder for their lawyers to work with them, harder for their families to come visit them and much harder for the community to rally in their support. 

The world was horrified to witness Cindy Garcia lose her husband to deportation in 2018. Imagine going through that twice. Such was the fate of Patricia Nino whose first husband was deported in July of 2016. She moved on only to have her new partner detained in another privately run prison in St. Claire, MI. “With COVID, every day is so scary. They don’t give them cleaning supplies or face masks. The kitchen staff has been released for their safety, so now grown men are being fed two slices of bread with a slice of bologna,” said Nino. “They’re being detained in St. Claire because they’re being paid to keep them there and it’s not safe for them.” The Garcia family was ultimately reunited, but that is the exception. Thousands of people who must live in the shadows have their lives torn apart in darkness.

At a time when selected inmates are being released from prison, pursuing new construction runs counter to the goal of slowing the  spread of the Covid-19 virus. “ICE prisons run by private companies are at a much or greater risk as other prisons.  Recent statistics released by ICE report that of the 2300 people in ICE custody tested for COVID-19, 1201 of the detainees were positive for being currently infected,” said Dr. Eric Bouwens, a physician working at a Covid testing center in Grand Rapids. “We are learning from the pandemic that no subgroup of our society is completely isolated from the rest of us.   All of us depend on reworking and rethinking the infection controls throughout the community to keep the pandemic curve crushed and our communities safe.   A new ICE prison will not make us safer; it will put us at increased risk.”

Ionia is not the first detention project for ICA. They already have one in Virginia called “Farmville”. In 2015, there were incidents of larvae in the food given to people detained there. In the same year, staff pepper sprayed a person detained while he was fully restrained in a chair. Later that year, someone was sprayed and kept in a four-point restraint bed for two whole days. Another  person detained  was pepper sprayed after mopping the floor with his socks. Someone else was placed in a restraint bed for four days. In 2017, a group of people inside ICA-Farmville were pepper sprayed by a guard, video showing that they were calm the whole time.

“By design, detention is a direct threat to the health of our communities, said Electra Bolotas with La Colectiva, the Virginia organization fighting to stop ICA’s abuse of inmates. “Detention as an institution separates people from their chosen communities through incarceration and deportation. It is a place where people are caged against their will based in a racialized system that specifically targets Black people and other people of color. By separating communities, people are more easily exploited, allowing companies to keep wages low and keep people from organizing against them.”  Ionia has faced economic challenges for generations making them an easy target to entice the community to a delusion of financial progress.

Michigan United grants you unrestricted use of the video and audio from this conference (below) for broadcast over the air and via any digital platforms.

Meeting Recording:

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