Firm: Whitmer made 'impossible' demands for immigrant detention center

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Immigration Centers of America renderings for a proposed detention center in Ionia, Michigan.

Lansing — Plans to sell a vacant Michigan prison to an immigrant detention center operator fell through after the Whitmer administration demanded a guarantee the facility would only house single adults, and none separated from other family members after they arrived in the United States.

Immigration Centers of America had planned to purchase the 46.4-acre property from the state land bank for $785,100 and build a 600-bed detention center for immigrants apprehended on suspicion of entering the country illegally. The project was expected to directly create roughly 225 jobs paying an average $68,000 a year.

But within two weeks of taking office, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration proposed 28 new stipulations for the deal, including one a company negotiator said would be “impossible” to comply with, according to documents obtained by The Detroit News under the Freedom of Information Act.

MoreWhitmer: 'Michigan values' led to blocked sale of shuttered prison

The emails are consistent with the Whitmer administration’s explanation for how the deal collapsed. They show ICA had agreed to most of the new stipulations but argued it had no control over other demands a company lobbyist called “very odd.”

The sale was initiated but not completed under Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. Jay Rising, a top aide to Whitmer, first explained the Democratic administration’s new approach and efforts to add “enforceable covenants” to the deal in a Jan. 16 email to Land Bank Director Josh Burgett.

“The initial thought would be to assure that the facility is not used to house families or children who have been separated from a family member (or alleged family members) who also were considered or alleged to have unlawfully entered or remained in the country,” Rising said.

The administration detailed the single adult and family stipulations, along with 26 others, in a formal proposal that was later sent to officials for ICA, which is based in Virginia and operates a detention facility there.

ICA agreed to most of the demands but told state officials it has “no operational control or influence over” who is taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customers Enforcement, which was seeking detention services for immigrants apprehended through Detroit Field Office operations.

“Further, ICA is not privy to the details of a detainee’s personal life or their immigration proceedings and processes.”

The company also explained that federal rules and contracts would also prevent it from fully complying with other proposed state requirements that it provide free telephone use to detainees, pay detainees the state minimum wage for any labor and allow unrestricted photography inside the facility by journalists, nonprofit organizations or other third-party visitors.

Some state demands 'very odd' 

Rising questioned why the firm could not write the family separation stipulations into its agreement with ICE.

“This is very odd,” responded Dennis Muchmore, a lobbyist for ICA who had served as Snyder’s chief of staff through 2015. “Certainly we cannot demand that federal immigration policy regarding detainees be limited to ‘single’ adults and we would have no way of binding ICE to a stipulation such as that.”

In his Jan. 25 email, Muchmore told state officials there were approximately 900 detainees “under the auspices” of ICE’s Detroit Field Office.

“The vast majority of them (are) in county jails with common criminals at present,” he wrote. “Am I to assume that incarceration procedures in jails are preferred and only contain ‘single’ adults? More than doubtful.”

The proposed detention center in Ionia would be a more “positive” facility that would include medical attention detainees during their average 54-day stay, he said.

“These detainees aren’t in an ICA facility due to a criminal act, rather a civil infraction,” Muchmore continued. “Why would it be ok for them, single or not, to be housed in a county jail with criminals, but not instead in a facility designed to provide visitation, care, nutrition and outside recreation access(?)”

Burgett, the land bank director, appeared sympathetic, telling Muchmore "I don't disagree" and noting he had "tried to play conduit and middle man here."

Company officials met with the Whitmer administration on Feb. 6, according to the documents. But by that point, it was clear the governor might reject the deal that had taken shape under her predecessor, said company spokesman John Truscott. 

"It was really an effort to save the project," Truscott said, suggesting the facility would have complemented an initiative first started under Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration to move immigrant detainees out of county jails and into more "humane" centers.

"This all started about five years ago," he said, explaining ICA is pursuing a similar project in Illinois and is "still looking in Michigan." The firm would not need Whitmer's approval if it located a detention facility on private property. 

The documents provided to The News did not include any additional emails about the proposed detention center until eight days later, when the governor's office, which is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, showed the Land Bank a media statement it had prepared to announce the deal was off.

“The governor believes that building more detention facilities won’t solve our immigration crisis, and she also believes that separating families doesn’t reflect Michigan values,” the administration said in a statement attributed to spokeswoman Tiffany Brown, who re-iterated that comment Friday in response to questions from The News. 

The Land Bank said it would continue to work with Whitmer’s office and a local review committee “to make sure both state and local level interests are met as we move forward with efforts to bring jobs and community investment back into the vacant Ionia property.”

GOP blasts lost jobs

Republicans blasted the decision by Whitmer, with the state party saying she “torpedoed” the deal and cost Ionia County 250 jobs.

State Rep. Thomas Albert, R-Lowell, also bemoaned the loss of planned jobs in his district and said he thought it was ““obvious the governor’s rejection was about appeasing her political base and taking a swipe at President Trump.”

Liberal groups praised Whitmer’s decision, including Michigan United, which noted the proposed Ionia detention center was 143 miles from Detroit, just within the 150-mile housing requirement for undocumented immigrants taken into custody by Detroit ICE.

The site plan for a proposal immigrant detention enter in Ionia.

“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 group said.

Planning documents presented to the state in October show ICA promoted a “unique visitation policy” that enabled family and legal visits 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, a policy “far more liberal than any other in the nation.”

For families that could not visit the facility, ICA said video conferencing would be available.

The company promised it would turn the former Deerfield Correctional Facility into a  “major employer and taxpayer” instead of an abandoned site.

ICA claimed its detention center in Virginia was responsible for 168 jobs, $6.9 million in labor income, $17.9 million in economic output and $1.3 million in state and local tax revenue for the town of Farmville and Prince Edward County in 2017.

In Ionia, ICA estimated construction would create 289 temporary jobs. Once operational, the company expected to employ 225 workers, along with 39 contract staffers for medical and food services.

Magnum Economics Consulting, in a report prepared for ICA, estimated the total annual impact on Ionia and the county would include 363 jobs, $22.2 million in labor income, $34.5 million in economic output and $1.2 million in total tax revenue.

The company planned to design and build a 166,000-square-foot facility on the site, demolishing the majority of existing structures but possibly renovating a former prison warehouse building. It promised a “state-of-the-art secure detention facility” to house adult male and female detainees for ICE.

Ionia officials 'disappointed'

The deal was contingent upon the state sale, an agreement with the city of Ionia and contract with the federal Immigration and Customers Enforcement agency of the Department of Homeland Security.

The company had met with local officials and encouraged continued negotiations, but the City Council did not end up voting on the proposed detention center because the state sale fell through.

“I’m disappointed that we weren’t allowed to make the decision,” City Councilman Gordon Kelley told The Detroit News. “It was taken out of our hands as far as whether or not we had an interest in it.”

Local reaction to the failed deal has been mixed, Kelley said. While he wanted to see more details before casting a vote, he initially supported the project in concept for its economic benefits.

Muchmore, in a Jan. 26 email to Burgett at the Michigan Land Bank, noted a local protest over the potential immigration detention center but described it as a small crowd.

“It’s an emotional issue and people certainly have the right to protest immigration policy,” Muchmore said.

“I just wish they would use facts when they talk about it. My experience with ICA is that they are real solid people and treat detainees with dignity. My guess is that many of them are treated better than when they were immigrating.”

Twitter: @jonathanoosting