Elk River – The jail here is home to most of Minnesota’s immigration detainees, and it’s brought nearly $30 million to Sherburne County in recent years.
But a proposal to expand its capacity to house even more detainees has prompted a debate over whether the county should profit from or opt out of the nation’s growing immigration detention system.
A group of protesters stands outside the county government complex once a week, holding up signs in opposition: No more jail expansions — people don’t belong in cages. Stop greed. Just wrong! Sherburne County gets $ to detain asylum-seekers.
“I think it’s important to be a voice in this conservative community,” said Cheryl Sill, a critic of the jail expansion. She questioned whether Sherburne County should be known as the detention center for the state, even as proponents say the facility brings jobs. “We’ve got plenty of other jobs for people to get in this county.”
County jails are an important part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention system, with Congress funding 40,520 beds nationally, and the Sherburne County Board has already moved ahead with a submission for another contract with the agency. If ICE approves its proposal, the Sherburne County jail would provide 500 beds — up from 300 today.
“I think there are some in the community that hope Sherburne County would just quit housing ICE detainees,” said Sheriff Joel Brott. “They will go somewhere, because it’s a system. It’s a whole country that’s looking for capacity.”
More jail beds would also bring more money.
Sherburne County received $29.2 million from ICE in a recent five-year period to board and transport immigration detainees, and its annual revenue has risen as the number of detainees increases. In 2016, the county took in $4.9 million; last year, it received $10.5 million.
The existing contract supports 63 full-time jobs and two part-time jobs at cumulative annual salaries of $4.2 million, expiring in 2023. Not getting a new one would likely lead to large-scale layoffs at the county government, Brott noted.
“That’s certainly something we hope to avoid … [ICE detainees] certainly are going to be held somewhere, and our staff do a great job,” said Brott. “They’re well cared for here.”
The controversy follows the collapse of a proposal to build a 500-bed ICE detention center in New Richmond in western Wisconsin. The Virginia-based company Immigration Centers of America said it would bring 200 jobs to the region. The firm pulled out of the process after the city recommended not approving the project because it did not fit with New Richmond’s long-term plan.
“Immigrants being detained in Wisconsin and Minnesota will be forced to remain incarcerated in local and county jails while awaiting their time in immigration court, rather than in a facility more suitable for those being held on civil charges,” said Duane Ragsdale, a company spokesman, in a statement at the time.
The County Board praised the benefits of the proposed expansion when it approved the ICE proposal in May. It’s expected to bring more than 60 jobs, along with $11.7 million in economic impact.
The money from ICE goes into a special revenue fund, along with payments from the U.S. Marshals Service and other entities, that in recent years has paid for a judicial services building, a public safety substation and emergency communication equipment.
“I know there is a group that thinks that ICE should be abolished,” Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said. “Those decisions are way above our pay grade.”
He said the issue is for state and federal officials to decide, adding, “We don’t sentence them, we don’t send them there, we don’t say when they can leave. That’s done by the courts. We just want to make sure we do the best possible job for them and for us while they’re there.”
Shawn Neudauer, a spokesman for ICE, said the agency would not comment on the submission involving the Sherburne County jail unless or until a contract is signed.
County jails with ICE contracts have drawn protests nationally, as critics call for local governments to stop profiting off what they see as an exploitative immigration system. In the Twin Cities, hundreds of protesters have periodically raised their voices against the nation’s immigration system. But in Sherburne County, a politically conservative area where 65% of voters backed Trump, critics have a more limited profile.
During a recent church sermon at Elk River Union Congregational Church, Pastor Robin Raudabaugh had a message for the congregation.
“You will not feel comfortable here if you believe that immigrants are ruining the country, taking jobs and bringing crime and drugs with them,” she said. Some people in Elk River, she later added, take offense to the idea that a Christian church “welcomes immigrants and is proud to stand up and say ‘no’ to the expansion of the Sherburne County jail to detain and house even more immigrants.”
Freeborn, Carver, Kandiyohi and Nobles counties also have contracts with ICE, but Sherburne County holds 71% of the agency’s detainees in Minnesota, according to records from December 2018.
“I think people have sometimes a belief that the people that we’re housing haven’t committed any crime other than being here illegally, and it’s just not the case,” said Brott.
Federal data compiled by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University shows that out of 307 inmates at the Sherburne County jail as of December 2018, 109 had no criminal conviction.
But Brott said that of the 1,500 people detained overall on behalf of ICE for most of last year, three-quarters had previous criminal convictions, including 29 for criminal sexual conduct, 19 for kidnapping, 82 for assault, three for murder and 11 for manslaughter. Roughly half were from Mexico; the rest hailed from 85 different countries.
He said that aside from the small group of opponents, he has not heard from upset members of the community.
Raudabaugh doesn’t think immigration policies are why the area voted for Trump, but “it’s a very politically and religiously conservative county.” She noted that sometimes faith leaders in Minneapolis “really don’t understand how much more complicated it is here in this community.”