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The Alien Depot

Richmond investors are quietly building a massive detention center for illegal aliens in Farmville, raising questions about how to handle undocumented immigrants and whether a town should profit off their confinement.



West of the heart of Farmville, past the welding shops and used-car lots along Waterworks Road, sits the tree-lined construction site of what will be the first privately run detention facility for illegal immigrants in Virginia.

Bulldozers are busy on the 18-acre site of a $15 million private detention facility, with enough beds for 775 undocumented or otherwise illegal aliens awaiting court hearings and deportation. The facility's backers hope it eventually will hold more than 1,000 illegal immigrants in a minimum-security style setting.

Due for completion in March, the center will be owned by privately held ICA-Farmville, a company controlled by three Richmond investors. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency contract to house the prisoners will be held by the town of Farmville, population 6,845, about 60 miles southwest of Richmond. For town officials grappling with budget constraints, the facility offers a pretty good deal.

“We'll get a rate of $1 to $2 per day per detainee,” Farmville Town Manager Gerald J. Spates says, beaming. “So, that's from $750 to $1,500 a day.” At the moment, illegal immigrants, at times as many as 400, are detained at the Piedmont Regional Jail, also in Farmville, which generates no revenues for the town.

It also may be a good deal for the Richmond businessmen behind the project, which includes Ken Newsome, president of AMF Bakery Systems and a Republican campaign contributor who's backed former Gov. Jim Gilmore. The two other investors are Warren Coleman and Russell Harper of Harper Associates, a prominent local commercial real estate developer. Newsome, Coleman and Harper didn't return phone calls seeking comment by Style's press time.

>The ICA-Farmville facility raises big questions about any number of controversies regarding illegal immigration. The center serves as a symbol of sorts for the immigration issue, which has been pushed to the back burner by the national debate over health care and the economic recession — the decline of the home-building industry, for example, has forced many Hispanic immigrants who can't find work to head back home.

Two years ago, political outrage over the illegal immigration issue roared with a fury among mostly conservative Republican politicians and television pundits. Affluent and mostly white Prince William County near Washington, for example, won a national reputation for being especially tough on illegals, leading to routine police roundups. As a result, many of the immigrant workers, particularly in the janitorial, construction and landscaping trades, fled the county.

The furor died down after many anti-illegal-immigration firebrands were whipped at polls last year, but unresolved problems continue nevertheless. Foreign nationals who overstay their visas find themselves rounded up or tricked into incarceration even as they try to straighten out their paperwork. Some of them face jail and deportation for crimes they served time for years before. Families are shattered as fathers or mothers are forced back home, often leaving behind children who are U.S. citizens because they were born here.

When bashing illegal immigrants became politically fashionable a few years ago, public officials discovered they don't have the facilities to handle the rush to snare undocumented aliens, sometimes resulting in tragedy. Since 2003, some 104 immigrant detainees have died at detention centers, mostly for unattended medical problems, according to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Last year the Piedmont Regional Jail, which likely will supply supervisory and guard staff for the new private detention center, drew the national spotlight when a detained immigrant died after being shoved to the floor, placed in solitary confinement and denied care for a heart ailment.

>Human rights activists question the rationale for holding immigrants behind bars if they've committed no serious crime other than their papers have expired or lapsed, and whether it's ethical and fair for a town such as Farmville to profit from illegal immigrants.

Another dynamic is economic. With the economy still mired in recession, a number of mostly Hispanic immigrants, both legal and illegal, have headed back home because they can't find work. A July report by the Pew Hispanic Center found that the flow of immigrants from Mexico to the United States has declined sharply. Pew found that the number of Mexican-born people in the United States stagnated at 11.5 million early this year, which means fewer are crossing the border.

Evidence of a slump can be seen at the brightly colored Tienda in the 4600 block of Jefferson Davis Highway in south Richmond. Located at the end of a forlorn strip shopping center, Comercial Marielena is a place where Richmond-area Hispanics, especially Salvadorans, come to buy Latino-brand aspirin, Salsa music CDs and soap-opera DVDs. There are racks of wedding dresses and tuxedos for sale. It's also a place where immigrants wire some of their hard-earned wages back home. Maria Rosales, the store's clerk and co-owner, says money transfers have slowed.

“About 35 percent less money is being sent back home,” says Rosales, who made the trek from El Salvador to Richmond 16 years ago. She says many people are going home because of the economy. “Their daddy goes back home,” she says. “This is happening with the Mexican people more.” Central Americans, like herself, tend to want to stay to tough out the downturn, though she admits she doesn't know why. 

>The recession has hurt Zhelly Flood, who operates Princess Cleaning Service in Midlothian. A Nicaraguan who came to the states eight years ago, Flood is married to an American and is a U.S. citizen. She oversees as many as 14 cleaning women a week from Central America or Mexico, but has lost six workers since the first of the year because of the recession.

“The economy is no good,” she says. “One person cannot support an apartment and if you have a husband and wife, they often have one car and have trouble getting around to work.”  Another problem is that the immigrant couples often have children who may have been born in the United States and are citizens. If one parent must return to Mexico, Guatemala or Nicaragua, often the children go too, Flood says, making for painful separations.

“I guess everybody's cutting back on sending money back home,” says Nury Marquez, head of the Falls Church-based-advocacy group, the Hispanic Committee of Virginia. “A lot of immigrants are merging households to cut back on the cost of living. They have a lot of trouble just paying their utility bills or just buying food.”

While immigration outrage may have cooled politically, widespread government crackdowns on illegal immigrants continue, especially on Latinos. Debra J.C. Dowd, an immigration lawyer at Richmond law firm LeClair Ryan, says that public hostility about the issue has raged on even though politicians have quieted down.

“There's more public opposition on blogs coming through on nastygrams,” Dowd says. “A lot of this has to do with the economy. As American-born workers lose more jobs, they don't want any competition from someone born elsewhere.”

Low-income immigrants, especially Hispanics, are easy targets for criminals or dishonest employers, according to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.

>A recent survey of 500 Hispanic families found that they face any number of crimes or indignities such as the automatic assumption that they're all undocumented. In Tennessee, for example, a young mother was arrested when she asked to be paid for her work at a cheese factory. A rapist in Georgia wasn't charged with the crime because his 13-year-old victim had no immigration papers. And a bean picker in Alabama had his life savings confiscated by police at a traffic stop, according to the law center's report.

The irony, according to the report, is that many businesses profited from the cheap immigrant labor during the economic boom of the 1990s. Reports show that the nation's dairy, farming and hotel industries couldn't function without illegal immigrant labor. In Virginia, for example, Harrisonburg is a major draw for Hispanic immigrants because of the many chicken and turkey processing plants in the Shenandoah Valley, says Tim Freilich, legal director of the Charlottesville-based Legal Aid Center's Immigrant Advocacy Project.

Dowd, the Richmond lawyer, says that she's conservative about strictly following the rule of immigration law. But the real problem is that the government doesn't enforce the law equitably, she says, and immigration policies sorely need reform.

“There are real problems with immigrants waiting for hearings. They may have unaccompanied minors who get caught with an adult. They need proper medicine, family counsel and many are not otherwise criminals,” Dowd says. “You have to go before an immigration judge, but you can't get the agents to call back. The closest court is in Alexandria. And you [shouldn't have to wait] six years for what can take 10 minutes.”

In some cases, dark-skinned Hispanics can be charged with a crime no matter what they do. In one well-publicized case, a group of Latino men were arrested outside an apartment complex in May by police in Prince William County. Those who couldn't prove they lived in the complex were charged with trespassing. Those who could prove they lived there were arrested for loitering.

Or, consider what happens when an immigrant has been convicted of a crime and has already served time for it. Adolfo Rendon, 35, of Virginia Beach, was picked up for deportation Aug. 11. He's being held in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail after trying to straighten out his expired immigration papers, according to his wife, Sondra, who works as a debt collector.

A Mexican citizen, Rendon has spent most of his life in the United States. The father of three had been working as a supervisor at a heating and air-conditioning company. Involved in a malicious wounding because of a “drunken night gone bad” some years ago, his wife says, Rendon spent 31 months in prison. He was released in 2001.

Other than a speeding ticket and getting caught fishing without a license, Rendon has kept out of trouble since then. Realizing that his legal permanent alien card had expired, he made an appointment with federal officials in Norfolk Aug. 11. While he sat in their office, immigration and customs agents arrived to arrest him, put him in jail and are trying to deport him.

“This is outrageous,” his wife says. “Why now?” She's struggling trying to support their 5-year-old daughter and her husband's 17-year-old son at their Norfolk home. Rendon has another 15-year-old daughter in California.

President Barack Obama has promised to make immigration a showcase effort in his reform of government. But his anxiously awaited ideas have been supplanted by health care. Action on immigration isn't expected until next year.

While policy issues simmer, ICA-Farmville has been finding ways to make money from illegal immigrants. About a mile up Waterworks Road from the detention facility is a rusty white mobile home next to the town's water filtration plant.

Parked on one side are eight white vans. They're the first money-making operation of the for-profit troika of Newsome, Coleman and Harper. The vans are used under an ICE contract to haul detained immigrants from local jails and state prisons in Virginia and throughout the mid-Atlantic to immigration court in Alexandria and either back to jail or to an airport for deportation.

The operation, also called ICA-Farmville, or Immigration Company of America, has been in operation for several years. The business transports illegal immigrants to and from lockup to courthouses for hearings, but operates quietly. When a reporter calls the listed number, a guard tells him to contact Gerald Spates, the town manager.

>In Virginia, the idea of private prisons gained great currency during the gubernatorial administration of Republican George Allen in the 1990s. Elected on the powerful campaign promise of ending parole he pushed for the privatization of prisons. He also gained popularity by expanding Virginia's prisons in remote, poor and rural areas such as Southside Virginia and in the coal fields of Southwest Virginia.

Farmville leaders see plenty of benefits from the detention center. Its original proposal a year ago called for $21 million facility with 1,040 beds. It would employ 200 people with a payroll of about $8.2 million — not bad for a town whose major employers are Longwood University and a string of home-furnishings stores near the Appomattox River. The facility would generate more than $700,000 in taxes.

Having a for-profit detention center doesn't seem to bother too many townspeople. This quiet, conservative place is the county seat of Prince Edward County, which gained international notoriety in the 1950s for leading Virginia's segregationist Massive Resistance. It shut down its public school system for years rather than allow black and white schoolchildren to attend the same public schools.

The ICA-Farmville project received two grants worth $581,760 for water, sewer and other improvements for the detention site from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, which awards money from the massive $246 billion 1998 tobacco settlement between the states and cigarette manufacturers for community projects. The commission, which controls the funding, is drawn mostly from the tobacco fields of Southside and Southwest Virginia.

Spates says that the facility will be a big improvement over holding facilities for illegals now in public jails and prisons where undocumented immigrants, sometimes with their children, are housed with hardened criminals. “We think it will be a model facility,” he says. Instead of prison-style settings, the detainees will be housed in open bays. “There will be access to computers and televisions — the whole nine yards.” Medical facilities will be available too, he says — “we're contracting with a doctor right now.”

Federal immigrations and customs officials and a Farmville town commission, made up of five to seven people with administrative prison experience, will oversee the facility. “We are ultimately responsible for this,” Spates says.

There are doubts of varying degrees regarding ICA-Farmville. For one thing, Spates says, banks balked at financing the project. “They were very reluctant to loan money so the investors had to put it up themselves,” he says. Consequently, the project has been scaled back. It will have only 775 beds at first and will cost $15 million. Moreover, none of the owners has any experience with prisons.

The plan is to buy expertise by recruiting recruit management and staff from existing prisons, Spates says, notably the Piedmont Regional Jail. But that strategy comes with big questions. The regional jail, which handles prisoners form six Central Virginia counties, has been accused of being understaffed, under-funded and poorly managed.

You don't have to look far for examples of what can go very wrong. At the regional jail in November, a 48-year-old German man named Guido R. Newbrough was being held for deportation after he'd been caught in a sweep of past sex molesters who happened to be immigrants.

>Newbrough was the son of an American Air Force sergeant and a German woman and was a German citizen. With the words “Raised American” tattooed on his arm, he'd lived most of his life in the United States, spoke no German and was considered an American, according to The New York Times. After his molestation conviction 2002, Newbrough appeared on the mend and had stopped drinking before he was picked up last year in “Operation Coldplay.” The sting was orchestrated by immigration officials and was widely touted by then state Attorney General Bob McDonnell to identify and deport sex criminals who were foreign nationals. McDonnell is running as the Republican candidate for governor.

In the Farmville facility, Newbrough complained of an infection. The father of three pleaded for care for 10 days but, according to a federal investigation, prison guards threw him to the ground and locked him in an isolation cell. Found unconscious, he was hospitalized but died the next day. A staph infection had turned a heart ailment fatal.

Newbrough's case, which received national publicity, is just one of several that points out threats to detained immigrants. In one case, a Guinea-born mechanic died after not being treated when his kidneys failed. The Donald W. Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., lost its contract to house detainees after a Chinese engineer failed to get medical help and died. Hiu Lui Ng, 34, had been arrested for overstaying his visa and was diagnosed with extensive cancer and a fractured spine after his death.

Nationally, immigration and customs reports that 104 people have died while being detained at immigrant facilities since 2003. Some of the deaths did not turn up until ICE was served with a Freedom of Information Act request and had to conduct its own investigation.

Deaths such as these, along with ethical issues of holding prisoners for profit, have some activists fuming. Jeff Winder, a Charlottesville-based organizer with the People United, says that Newbrough's fatal condition could have been easily treated with antibiotics and that some of the Piedmont Regional Jail officials who oversaw his health are likely to be on the commission that will oversee the ICA-Farmville operation.

“Turning humans over to private companies is wrong,” Winder says. “Their goals are to make dividends for their shareholders and cut costs, not provide adequate care for human beings.”

Legal Aid lawyer Freilich says “the immigrant detention system is a disgrace,” and that “there are well-documented cases of medical neglect including Farmville.” He adds: “This nation locks up more people per capita than any other nation in the world.”

People United and other activists have held several marches to protest the for-profit detention center in the past year, but little attention has been paid in the media, notably the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The next big turning point will be what the Obama administration decides to do about immigration reform. If passed, some ideas could turn the entire issue upside down and could make the Farmville detention center a relic.

Spates, for example, says rumors abound that Obama might propose simply granting amnesty to the estimated 12 million illegals in the country. “I keep hearing rumors that they'll just grant citizenship,” he says. “But they'll still need a way to process these people,” he adds, implying that the for-profit detention facility could somehow be turned into a citizenship-processing center.

Granting broad amnesty, however, seems far-fetched, especially for a president whose approval ratings are on the wane. Lawyers and activists don't see such a bold move but believe that steps to help illegals change their status are definitely in the cards, although nothing is expected until next year.

“It's unclear what will be proposed but it may be similar to what the Bush administration tried to do,” immigration lawyer Dowd says. “There probably won't be a straight-out amnesty but a sponsorship of families by employers. There will probably be an English language component. They may become permanent residents but not directly U.S. citizens.”

In some ways, Obama is being tougher on some policies initiated by Bush. He wants more federal money put into an electronic system to verify resident status quickly. It would be used by would-be employers, police and immigration and customs agents.

Yet differences remain. Bush concentrated on high-publicity raids at Wal-Mart stores and poultry factories that snared dozens of illegals on job sites — including, ironically, the federal courthouse building in downtown Richmond when it was under construction. Obama wants to go after employers who knowingly employ illegals. Doing so goes to the root of the problem and doesn't end up imprisoning aliens and their families who simply want a better life.

Taken together with the ongoing recession and double-digit unemployment rates in some parts of the United States and Virginia, Obama's lagging on the immigration front will only produce more months of angst. In the meantime, the question for the ICA-Farmville detention center may be less about whether it's ethical and more about whether it's even necessary.

For immigrants struggling to make a living in America, uncertainty remains and incarceration can have fatal consequences. S

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