Prison companies and a county sheriff's office pitched proposals to expand immigration detention facilities in Minnesota as a rise in arrests has created a space crunch for immigration authorities.
The four proposals include a plan to reopen the long-shuttered private prison in Appleton, an addition to the Sherburne County jail and new private facilities in Pine Island and at an undisclosed location, according to information Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) provided to the advocacy group National Immigrant Justice Center.
Minnesota immigrant advocacy groups have decried the plan to expand detention locally, arguing it will hamper due process in immigration court. But some local officials have pushed for such facilities as economic development drivers. The plans remain at an early stage as a Trump administration bid for additional federal dollars for immigration detention stalled in Congress.
In a statement Monday, ICE said it is fleshing out its "acquisition strategy" based on the pitches and gearing up for a more formal request for proposals.
"The proposed facilities are part of the agency's long-term nationwide effort to reform the current immigration detention system by improving the conditions of confinement and by locating detainees closer to where they are apprehended so that they can be near their families, attorneys, community resources and the nearest ICE Field Office," the agency said.
ICE now contracts with sheriff's offices in Sherburne, Freeborn, Carver and Nobles counties to hold immigration detainees at local jails.
In October, ICE posted a notice inquiring about the availability of extra beds for several of its Midwest offices, including the one in St. Paul, which covers Minnesota and four surrounding states and seeks to add 200 to 600 beds.
The Sherburne County jail, which now ensures at least 300 beds for ICE inmates, proposed a 200-bed addition. Sheriff Joel Brott, who has touted the ICE contract for defraying jail expenses and funding other county projects, said the addition would require city and county approval.
The private detention company MTC pitched a 640-bed facility on a vacant plot just outside Pine Island, about 90 miles from the ICE St. Paul field office. CoreCivic, which owns the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton, proposed reopening a portion of the 1,600-bed prison, which closed in 2010 amid lagging occupancy. Immigration Centers of America, another private prison company, suggested building a 600- to 1,200-bed facility, though it is unclear where it would be located.
The plans are preliminary and did not include costs.
Pine Island City Administrator David Todd said representatives from MTC and a California-based real estate developer that owns the 1,200-acre vacant space approached city officials last fall to gauge the possibility of providing utilities to the spot, one of five sites MTC was considering. But the company hasn't yet submitted a more detailed plan, which would be subject to community feedback and City Council approval.
"I have not heard a peep from them since," Todd said.
Spokespeople for MTC and CoreCivic told the Associated Press, which first reported the proposals, that they are waiting to hear from the feds on their pitches.
Four Twin Cities nonprofits that provide free or low-cost legal services to immigrants facing deportation wrote to ICE after it sought detention proposals in the fall, saying they are already swamped and more beds could curtail access to representation for detainees. They argued the government should instead use strategies such as release on bond and check-ins with immigration authorities.
The Immigrant Law Center and others said Monday they are especially troubled to see that most proposals came from private companies. They cited a range of complaints about for-profit immigration detention, from access to healthcare to allegations of sexual and physical abuse.
"We feel incarceration for profit is particularly repugnant and reprehensible to our values," said Lars Negstad, with the faith-based advocacy group Isaiah, an opponent of recent efforts to reopen the Appleton prison. "To see three proposals come from private companies seeking to make money off the misery of families is just despicable."
But Appleton Mayor Chad Syltie said city and county officials as well as business leaders are presenting "a unified front" in support of reopening the Prairie Correctional Facility. He said its closure dealt a major blow to the local economy, and relaunching it would give "a great boost" to area businesses.
"Right now we would take anything we could get, whether it's a state or federal thing," Syltie said. "If the prison reopens, we would be extremely happy."
John Keller of the Immigrant Law Center said he and others will redouble efforts to cultivate local opposition to the projects in coming months.
"We haven't been involved in a fight like this," he said. "There's a lot of work to be done."
Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781