A Trump-supporting community refuses migrant detention center

Nearly two-thirds of voters in Indiana's Elkhart County backed Donald Trump for president back in 2016, but now Immigration and Customs Enforcement is considering opening a migrant detention facility in one of its towns, and residents are shifting their views.

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
The logo of former President Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign fades on a barn in Elkhart County, Ind., on June 1, 2018. In the county that voted nearly two-thirds for Donald Trump, a grass-roots campaign by local residents voiced enough opposition to scuttle the building of an immigration detention center nearby.

The sermon had been preached, the last prayers offered. Now, Mike Yoder decided, the time had come to share unsettling news.

As congregants at Silverwood Mennonite Church chatted around a Sunday potluck spread, Mr. Yoder, a county commissioner for 13 years and a dairy farmer for much longer, huddled with Pastor Jeremy Shue at the edge of the hall. There was a very good chance, Yoder confided, that the nation's newest immigration detention center would soon rise from a soybean field north of town.

"One of the only positives is that it would be less of a drive to protest," Mr. Shue said.

Yoder needed no reminder of the potential for conflict. The Republican had paid close attention when nearly two-thirds of Elkhart County's voters backed Donald Trump for president after a campaign in which he lambasted immigrants. He knew just as well that the politically mixed county seat and the largest local employers had made a place for thousands of immigrants from Mexico – a significant, but uncertain, number of them in the US illegally. 

It was a balancing act in this part of northern Indiana, founded on sometimes conflicting views about business and faith, community and law. And the proposal for a 1,200-bed detention center put decision-makers on the tightrope.

"It was like a microcosm of all the different issues of immigration," Yoder said, "right here in this county."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has long sought to consolidate immigrants held in scattered Midwest jails. Since 2011, contractors have proposed detention centers in seven communities near Chicago, from the exurb of Crete, Ill., to the steel center of Gary, Ind.

"This is a game of whack-a-mole," said Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, who has worked with activists to push a number of those proposals to defeat.

Local governments in Texas and California recently canceled agreements to hold detainees for ICE even as other communities seek the jobs and dollars that doing so can generate.

But demand for those facilities is rising. Though Mr. Trump talks up building a border wall, his administration has focused a large part of its policy on arrests away from the border and is seeking new detention sites.

ICE does not own most of these facilities. Instead, it hires companies whose for-profit lockups hold two-thirds of the immigrants detained for being in the country illegally, with others in local jails under contract. The agency spends about $134 a day to hold each detainee, government figures show .

Last fall, ICE put out a request for new detention sites near Chicago; Detroit, Salt Lake City, and St. Paul, Minn., as well as in South Texas, as it sought to expand capacity from 40,000 migrants to 51,000.

A proposal by CoreCivic Inc., one of the nation's largest private prison companies, put Elkhart County on that list.

The county, two hours east of Chicago, is the hub of the booming recreational vehicle industry with around 2 percent unemployment. A large Amish population has long provided many factory workers, but with 9,000 openings, "we have a lot of jobs that nobody wants," said Yoder, whose father once led RV manufacturer Jayco Inc.

Immigrants have filled much of the gap in the workforce, yet residents remain divided on issues including immigration. More than 7,000 packed an Elkhart school gym in May to cheer Trump. But the county seat of Goshen – dotted with multilingual yard signs proclaiming "No matter where you are from, we're glad you're our neighbor" – is a counterweight, home to a Mennonite college and large Latino population.

The proposal for a detention center would jab at those complexities. Yoder jumped in first, trying for a dialogue instead of a dispute.

"Commissioners had a mess to deal with, and that's the reason I reached out early," Yoder said. "It didn't go as planned. Maybe that was because I was naive."

Richard Aguirre had spent months helping start an ID card program for Goshen's immigrants, many barred from obtaining driver's licenses because they were in the US illegally. To Mr. Aguirre, a Goshen College administrator, it was a victory, however local.

On campus, he knew dozens of students brought to the US illegally as children. The grandson of Mexican immigrants, Aguirre had childhood memories of relatives struggling to get by without work papers.

"It struck me as unfair that depending on which side of the border you were born on, you had a good life or a fairly miserable life," he said.

When Yoder heard about the detention center, he knew it might antagonize people like Aguirre. But the project would be difficult to turn down, Yoder said. It would reap jobs and taxes from a site across from the county landfill and jail. Many Republican voters would likely back it.

So he asked his pastor to arrange a meeting with Mennonite clergy, many of whom preach a message of welcoming the stranger. If a detention center was going to get built, Yoder said, maybe it would be best where clergy could minister to detainees.

He also was mindful of the county's growing Latino population and Goshen's more liberal voters. Elkhart County is about 16 percent Hispanic, drawn to a region that produces 4 of every 5 RVs in North America. In Goshen, though, nearly a third of residents are Latino, accounting for more than half of school enrollment. Downtown, taquerias mix with wine bars and antique shops.

So the same day he spoke to pastors, Yoder met with Goshen Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, Aguirre and others.

"I'd really like your help communicating calmness," the commissioner said.

"My reaction was, 'No way!'" Aguirre said.

That night, he started a Facebook page for the Coalition Against the Elkhart County Immigration Detention Center. Activists had already planned a rally to celebrate the ID cards. Aguirre recast it as a protest.

Driving toward the courthouse on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Aguirre figured icy rain would cap turnout at 60. Then he climbed to the top of the granite steps, handing a microphone to Felipe Merino, an immigration attorney and the president of Goshen's school board.

"I want you to raise your hands if you believe that we do not want an immigration detention facility in Elkhart County, Indiana!" Mr. Merino said.

More than 200 thrust fists from under umbrellas.

"No!" they shouted.

Listening to Yoder explain the detention center, Neil Amstutz, pastor of Waterford Mennonite Church, knew it was a proposal he could not abide.

Years before, he had served as a missionary in Bolivia and worked in San Antonio, Texas, to settle refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala, becoming fluent in Spanish. After talking with fellow Mennonite clergy, he called a Mexican immigrant pastor, Jose Luis Gutierrez, whose Pentecostal church sits alongside an apple orchard two miles from Amstutz's own.

Gutierrez's church, Comunidad Cristiana Adulam, is named for the biblical cave where King David took refuge.

"Some people from my community find that kind of protection – they feel like refugees – in the church," Gutierrez said. "It's a safe place for worship because of the language, and it doesn't matter if they have documents or not."

With another pastor, Gutierrez and Amstutz invited clergy from around the county to meet, and the group made plans for a communitywide service to oppose the detention center.

On Dec. 17, in a sanctuary decorated with candles for the holiday, an impromptu congregation filled most of the pews of Elkhart's First Presbyterian Church.

"Why are we here?" Amstutz preached. "To show that whether or not our government builds a bigger wall to keep immigrants out, God's church is about breaking down dividing walls!"

But many immigrants were increasingly apprehensive.

When 19-year-old Lizeth Ochoa first heard about the detention center, she imagined a lockup filled with criminals.

"But then I realized, oh, it's for people like me," said Ms. Ochoa.

When Ochoa was 9 months old, her mother paid a smuggler to spirit them from Mexico. They joined her father, who had already found work in Elkhart.

Now, though, her place in the US felt increasingly tenuous. Former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative had eased concerns about deportation, but Trump was pulling the plug on the program. At home, she and her parents avoided talk of the detention center, fearful of upsetting her four US-born siblings. But quietly, she considered what they would do if ICE officers newly assigned to Elkhart knocked on their door.

"It's been very stressful, [thinking] that my siblings might end up in foster homes because my parents and I would get deported," said Ochoa, who will be a junior next fall at Goshen College. Nearly a quarter of its 900 students are now Latino, many brought to the US illegally when they were children, and so Ochoa was not alone in worrying.

Trump's election had already unsettled some in Gutierrez's congregation. Talk of a detention center renewed their uneasiness.

"If ICE can do that in this county, people are going to go away," said Luis Fraire, a mechanic who came to Elkhart from Mexico 11 years ago, married and started a family and a business.

"We are all brothers in God," he said, as fellow worshippers filtered out of Adulam one Sunday. "We pray to God because nobody else can stop this but him."

To others, a detention center was just what the county needed.

"Make sure you build it big 'cause it's going to be overflowing," George Holiday, a retired forklift driver, posted online.

In an interview, Mr. Holiday said the county had changed tremendously in recent years, with more signs in Spanish and new arrivals who don't seem to speak English. Immigrants work hard but disregard laws requiring permission to enter or stay, he said.

A decade ago, Bob Schrameyer and fellow Goshen residents lobbied police to partner with ICE, and pushed employers to vet workers' legal status. The problem, Mr. Schrameyer contends, is that many immigrants don't pay their fair share of taxes, while collecting welfare benefits.

When he sought tighter controls, those who disagreed argued that enforcement was the federal government's job. But when the Trump administration tried to do it, people complained about that, too, said Schrameyer, a retiree and founder of the local Citizens for Immigration Law Enforcement.

The detention center "was a no-brainer," bound to bring in new taxes, Schrameyer said.

"But the loud opponents of it were the supporters of illegal immigrants in the area and, of course, they were worried the storm troopers were coming to town," Schrameyer said.

On a recent morning, Roland Weaver put aside the trowel he was using to seal the foundation of his home, down County Road 7 from the proposed detention site. Such a facility would uphold the rule of law, he said, but there was more to it.

"We have a Constitution founded on the principles of God, and a lot of them, the illegals, they don't have that where they're from and so they can bring in their beliefs. That's what waters down what this country was founded on," said Mr. Weaver, a tiler at an RV plant.

"A lot of people say Jesus, he loved illegals and he didn't have borders when he was on this earth. But, hey, it's a different world."

At a holiday gathering in late December, Mayor Stutsman ran into retired cardiologist Mark Smucker. Talking over the proposal, the men were joined by Galen Miller, owner of a poultry company and a friend of Smucker's since childhood.

"The argument I made was if we ever solve our problems with immigration in this country, either by reform or by deporting everybody, at some point we aren't going to need an immigration detention center," Mr. Smucker said. "It seemed to me that the people in the RV manufacturing community would not like to see even more of their workers drift away."

Mr. Stutsman, a Democrat, proposed a letter of opposition. Mr. Miller agreed to reach out to executives at Elkhart's RV companies.

Back when CoreCivic had first called, Yoder said he cautioned a company official that the biggest potential pitfall would be wariness from major employers. But any concerns had largely been kept silent.

"There is this dilemma," said Jim Siegmann, former owner of a printing company who is active in business and civic circles. Many of Elkhart's business leaders, he said, are politically conservative but count on immigrant workers, though some are in the US illegally.

"They know they couldn't run their businesses without them," he said.

When a small group met in Stutsman's office, several executives endorsed his letter.

Worries, though, were stretching beyond profits. Civic leaders, wary of recessions and the region's reputation as flyover country, had long invested in projects to make the county a draw for companies and workers. How did a detention center fit that script?

On a recent morning, Pete McCown, president of the Community Foundation of Elkhart County, pointed from his office window to construction turning an industrial island at the junction of Elkhart's rivers into a new hub with hundreds of apartments. Construction workers clambered over a shell that will house a $68 million community center with a natatorium for competitive swimming.

Elkhart wants jobs, McCown said. But a detention center would add positions that could be difficult to fill, while potentially labeling the county as a place to lock people up.

"We don't want that to become our identification," he said.

On the first Friday night of each month, Goshen residents gather around the Elkhart County Courthouse for a street festival.

In early June, an Amish couple sold kettle corn. Children scribbled their names on the sidewalk with chalk. A local band, Los Ortega, pumped Mexican dance tunes across the grass.

"I love living here," said Pepe Urzua, a roofer who arrived from Mexico eight years ago, cradling his infant daughter. "It's a place where you want to raise your kids."

Across the grass, Rob Emahiser, a salesman for a tire manufacturer, looked out over the crowd.

"I'm a Trump-loving Republican, and I love everything about this community," he said.

Emahiser toasted the tax cut Trump signed into law. Then he praised Latino co-workers and neighbors for working hard and taking care of their families – and pointed out that sometimes he and the president would have to disagree.

"They wanted to build a detention center in this town," he said as a guitarist led a line of dancing Latino couples through lengthening shadows. "That's just not who we are."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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