Michigan Governor Whitmer halts immigrant detention plan

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's move has drawn praise from immigrant rights activists, but a Republican lawmaker is critical – his district stood to gain jobs if the detention center had opened.

Cory Morse/The Grand Rapids Press/AP
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer visits Grand Rapids Community College's Leslie Tassell M-TEC campus on Feb. 13, 2019 in Grand Rapids, Mich. Governor Whitmer is stopping the sale of a former state prison that could have been the site of a privately managed immigration detention center.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer blocked the sale of a former state prison that was proposed as the site of a privately operated federal immigration detention center, drawing praise from immigrant rights activists and criticism Tuesday from a Republican lawmaker whose district stood to gain jobs.

Governor Whitmer late last week stopped the proposed sale from proceeding, after plans for the facility had advanced in the fall under the administration of then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican. She said Virginia-based Immigration Centers of America would not promise to not detain adults who are separated from their children or other family members.

"The governor believes that building more detention facilities won't solve our immigration crisis, and she also believes that separating families doesn't reflect our Michigan values," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said in a statement.

GOP state Rep. Thomas Albert, whose district includes the former Deerfield Correctional Facility in Ionia – 110 miles northwest of Detroit – vowed Tuesday to fight Whitmer's decision.

"This issue is not going away," he told The Associated Press, noting that he chairs the House subcommittee that is responsible for the Department of Corrections budget.

He said Ionia has lost out on 250 new jobs, $35 million in private investment, and property tax revenue due to the blocked deal. It is not clear, however, if the GOP-led Legislature can realistically revive the project.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has set a March 29 deadline for bids to house approximately 600 male detainees within 150 miles of Detroit, either at a facility in Michigan or Ohio. It may be too late for Immigration Centers of America to find another site before then, a company spokesman said.

Mr. Albert, of Lowell in western Michigan, said Whitmer's administration added strict stipulations to the proposed development agreement, including that the facility not house any individual who had been separated from a family member at apprehension, during detention or any other time while in custody. The restriction, which would have applied for adults detained and separated for the purpose of criminal prosecution or unlawful entry, would have forced the company to release a detainee if he or she alleged that they have been separated, he said.

"That's effectively turning the detention center into a hotel. There's literally no way that anybody could comply with that," Albert said. "It was just a thinly veiled way to torpedo the whole deal."

Immigration Centers of America, which operates a detention center in Virginia, was the sole bidder for the former prison, which closed in 2009. Spokesman John Truscott said the Michigan facility would have offered a "much better and more humane" alternative than the current practice of housing detainees in county jails.

It is a "possibility" that Whitmer could change her mind, "but we're not counting on it," he said.

While Albert accused Whitmer of appeasing her political base with a move against President Trump – who rescinded a family separation policy last year – the immigrant rights group Michigan United applauded her for doing the "moral and just thing."

"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 organization said in a statement.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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