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On the edge of Raymondville, Texas, are the crumbling brick walls and disintegrating roofs of the packing sheds that used to employ hundreds of people to store and ship the region’s agricultural produce. Farther in, the present-day economy comes into clearer focus. Taquerias and snow-cone stands are flanked by boarded up homes and shops. What is hidden off the main roads is what has really been keeping this small south Texas town of 11,000 people afloat: prisons. Small towns across the Rio Grande Valley have struggled economically since America’s Farm Belt moved north, and immigrant detention centers have helped fill the void. Raymondville is home to both a state prison and soon, for the second time, a privately run detention center. Willacy County is full of descendants of people who crossed the Rio Grande. It is also the fifth-poorest county in the United States. Amid the intense national debate over immigration, Eleazar Garcia Jr., the Raymondville city manager, crunches numbers that add up to half a million dollars. That, he says, is all he can focus on, even with his close ties to Mexico. His father-in-law, a bootmaker, swam the river into the US. His brothers-in-law were born in Mexico and fought for the US in Vietnam. “All of us have family members who came across at one time or another, everybody down here,” he says. “There’s good people there, man. I don’t want to see them locked up either, but it’s not my call,” he adds. “We do what’s best for the whole community.”
When you take the Raymondville exit off I-69 East, you’re greeted almost immediately by a stand of palm trees and a ‘For Sale’ sign.
One of the first sights on the edge of Raymondville are the crumbling brick walls and disintegrating roofs of packing sheds that used to employ hundreds of people helping store and ship the region’s agricultural produce. Farther in, the present-day economy comes into clearer focus. Taquerias and snow-cone stands are flanked like missing teeth by boarded up homes and shops. Decades-old local stores face down chain stores and converted restaurants across the hot, cactus-lined sidewalks.
What is hidden off the main roads is what has really been keeping this small south Texas town of 11,000 people afloat in recent years: prisons.
Small towns across the Rio Grande Valley have struggled economically since America’s farm belt moved further north in the late 1960s, and prisons – immigrant detention centers in particular – have helped fill the void for the near-border towns. Raymondville, about 100 miles southeast, is home to both a state prison and soon, for the second time, a privately-run immigrant detention center.
The eyes of the world have been fixed on the Valley since the Trump administration began implementing its “zero-tolerance” immigration policy on the southern border two months ago, leading to the now-ended controversial separation of families.
But that is not the context Willacy County Judge Aurelio Guerra thinks about when asked about the new immigrant detention center opening in a county that is full of descendants of people who crossed the Rio Grande. He thinks about how Willacy is the fifth-poorest county in the United States, about how the county’s population stopped growing last year for the first time in decades, and about how 38 percent of his constituents live below the poverty line.
“Because of us needing any type of [economic] opportunity, any type of value to add to our tax base, we certainly welcome a facility such as that,” says Judge Guerra earlier this week, hanging up his black robe in his office after a morning hearing cases in the county court.
Most county judges in Texas are chief executives for the county, not actual judges. Willacy County is small enough that Guerra does both jobs, and it is small enough that the 200-to-250 jobs he has been told the detention center will bring could be a fiscal boon.
“We’ll take the 250. We’ll take 30, we’ll take 20, we’ll take five. We need the jobs,” he says.
Thirty minutes from the Gulf of Mexico and about an hour from the Mexico border, Raymondville – which brands itself as “the city with a smile” – is the county seat of Willacy County. The town is in a similar position, economically and geographically, to the towns along I-35 between San Antonio and Laredo, Texas – a stretch of I-35 nicknamed “detention alley.” Not quite close enough to be either a bustling border town or a coastal tourist town, these town rely on prisons as an integral part of the economy.
That has brought its own controversy, however. When the detention center first opened in 2006, some residents voiced opposition, Guerra recalls. Nine years later the US Bureau of Prisons shut it down after a riot in which prisoners set fire to 10 Kevlar tents and controlled the prison for two days – an outburst resulting from long-simmering anger at poor medical care, filthy bathrooms, and maggot-infested food. The center had been nicknamed “Ritmo.”
But by then, Guerra says, “Ritmo” had become a local economic cornerstone. Four hundred employees were instantly laid off, and the county government lost a third of its $8.1 million budget, requiring 23 layoffs of its own. Within a year, the local Walmart closed as well. Last year, county officials sold the facility to Management & Training Corp., the private prison company that originally opened the detention center in 2006. The company announced in May that it would be reopening the facility as a 1,000-bed detention center.
“I have not had a single constituent from Willacy County come to me and say, ‘Don’t re-open,’ ” says Guerra.
“What has happened at the federal level and is happening here in the Valley with the children being separated from their parents, [the county] is not for that,” he adds. “And I would think the local community is not for that.”
‘We do what’s best for the whole community’
Sitting in his office, Eleazar Garcia Jr., the Raymondville city manager, is punching numbers into a print calculator on his desk, talking through the potential revenue from the detention center. He types: $280,000 worth of new property taxes, plus $20,000 a month – times 12 months – selling the facility water and sewer service.
“That’s a half a million dollars, man,” he says. “That one thing is worth 17 percent of my total budget.”
Those may be best-case numbers, but he insists that’s all he can focus on, even with his close ties to Mexico. His father-in-law, a bootmaker, swam the river into the US. His brothers-in-law were born in Mexico and fought for the US in Vietnam.
“All of us have family members who came across at one time or another, everybody down here,” he says.
“There’s good people there, man. I don’t want to see them locked up either, but it’s not my call,” he adds. “I have my own thoughts on immigration. I can’t use that in our decision factor. We do what’s best for the whole community.”
Hope the inmates are treated fairly
Few locals are likely to have as intimate a knowledge of immigrant detention centers as Barrington Morgan. He spent about 18 months in them between 2007 and 2009.
A permanent resident since 1984, he now works at an insurance company on Hidalgo Ave., the main road through Raymondville. While his overall experience “really wasn’t that bad” – he gained about 60 pounds while he was there – he does have some issues.
“Having to be in there for an undisclosed amount of time, it’s just not – you go crazy in there, really you do,” he says. “You don’t have a sense of time when you’re in there.”
Born on a small island in Nicaragua, Mr. Morgan came to the US when he was 8. After serving two months for drug possession he got put into removal proceedings, and says he was surprised to find so many other long-time US residents in the detention centers he stayed in.
“I remember being in the same cell with them and they find out they’re being deported … after being [here] for 30 years of their lives,” he adds. “It was ridiculous, so sad.”
He chose to return to Nicaragua while he fought his case, spending two years there before an immigration judge pardoned him in 2011. He lives in Harlingen now, commuting every day to work in Raymondville. He is skeptical the new detention center will be a significant economic boost for the town.
“A lot of people that are going to be employed there aren’t going to be locals,” he says. “I just hope that the inmates are treated fairly and humanely.”
He isn't the only Raymondville resident to express concern about the welfare of detained immigrants. Martin Cantu, co-manager of Earl’s Agri-Business, a feed store, remembers local schools going on lockdown during the 2015 riot, and he says he’s “mixed” on the detention center reopening again. “Hopefully the conditions are fine,” he says. “They have to have rioted for a reason.”
A changing Main Street
About half of the 400 employees at the old detention center lived in Raymondville, Mr. Garcia says. Armando Duarte remembers how the town would fill with workers during their lunch break. There were more restaurants, a “western” store, and multiple stores that, like his, sold cowboy boots.
“There are no mom and pop stores anymore,” he says.
Mr. Duarte learned bootmaking from his father, who learned it from his uncle in Mexico and opened Armando’s Boot Company in 1982. The cowboy boot towering over the front door is, along with a water tower painted with a smiley face, a landmark of the Raymondville skyline. Since the store ships boots to customers all over the country, Duarte says they have been relatively insulated from the recent economic struggles.
Joe Alexandre has not been. Elected three times as the town’s mayor, he also owned a jewelry store on Hidalgo Ave. He closed it after the detention center shut down. It sits vacant with the Alexandre’s Jewelry sign in the window and his cell number written on a piece of paper taped to the door.
“We need all the employment we can get,” he says.
He lives in Harlingen now, but spent most of his life in Raymondville. He remembers the 1970s and ’80s, when the packing sheds were operating 24 hours a day, full of local produce. He also remembers being a volunteer fireman, and fighting in vain as they burned down.
“It was hard to see them go down, because it was a major source of income,” he says. “Back then, whoever would have thought we’d have an economy with detention centers.”