Commissioners, residents debate over ICE facility

© 2018-Uinta County Herald

EVANSTON — A planned conference call on Tuesday, Feb. 6, between the Uinta County Commission and Mike Murphy with Management and Training Corporation (MTC) concerning the proposed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Uinta County did not take place due to Murphy’s unavailability. 

However, a group of local residents who had planned to listen in on that call instead met with commissioners to get updates on the proposal, share concerns and have questions answered. 

Commissioners Eric South, Craig Welling and Wendell Fraughton, along with County Attorney Loretta Howieson spent about an hour responding to questions and providing information to those who attended, both from Evanston and the Bridger Valley. 

The commissioners began by saying there wasn’t a lot of information they could provide, and they were still waiting to hear from the federal government regarding the suitability of Evanston as a location for a detention center.

Evanston resident Suzanne MacEwen asked if the project had a definite go-ahead if the federal government approved the location, and South said, “It’s not a done deal in any sense of the word.”

Another Evanston citizen, Clarence Vranish, said he was neither for nor against the proposal but had questions, and he asked if anyone had visited other MTC facilities or spoken with people who live in the communities that are home to other MTC facilities. South responded by saying the commissioners didn’t feel it was necessary to do that until they heard something back from the federal government. 

“It isn’t that we’re not interested or don’t want to know, but we didn’t want to spend the money until it was necessary,” said South. 

Bridger Valley residents Pete and Barbara Roitz were vocal in their opposition to the proposal. The couple asked numerous questions about long-term plans and what would happen if the center were to be built, only to close several years later. 

Barbara Roitz said she has been pleased to see all the work Evanston has put into building restoration and the downtown area, but she was concerned about what would happen to the community if the facility were to be built. 

“As far as other business goes, what’s going to want to come over here with that? We see what Evanston and the community have built that has been really helpful for the town. That’s going to be lost,” she said.

Barbara Roitz also spoke of Rawlins and her view that the prison being located in Carbon County has kept other development and businesses out of that area. 

Saundra Meyer, former Evanston city councilwoman and state legislator, said she was concerned about Evanston’s image across the state. Meyer specifically mentioned recent articles in newspapers around Wyoming.

“I’m concerned about state events and whether things will continue to be held here,” she said. “We have beautiful facilities, but if state[wide] newspapers are opposed, how is the rest of the state perceiving Evanston and Uinta County?” 

MacEwen said she shared Meyer’s concerns. She said she is heavily involved with the arts in Evanston.

“We’re starting to develop a reputation as one of the performing arts centers of Wyoming,” MacEwen said. “In the long-term that brings in lots of economic activity, and that’s a much nicer reputation than a prison town.” 

Commissioner Welling addressed the concerns about the community’s reputation with a discussion about the Wyoming State Hospital (WSH). He said the hospital had been a great employer in the community and the county.

“We can demean the State Hospital if we want to,” he said, “but that does not have a negative flavor or create a bad reputation for us.” 

Evanston resident Charles Butcher disagreed and said that, while WSH does create a lot of jobs and provide needed services, there still are negative comments heard from others around the state.

Butcher said he was concerned tourists wouldn’t stop here when the first thing they see coming in on I-80 from the east isn’t the view of the Bear River State Park but is instead a prison surrounded by barbed wire.

Welling said the location where the detention center would potentially be located wouldn’t be visible from the interstate and he doesn’t think that’s a valid concern.

However, when Bridger Valley resident Dave Tanner asked county GIS coordinator Gary Welling to point out the proposed location on a map, it contradicted Commissioner Welling’s claim about being visible from I-80.

Gary Welling said the first two locations the county had proposed had been rejected by MTC because they were not deemed cost-effective. Of the current proposal location, he said, “It’s a hill and it’s hard to hide something.” 

Residents expressed doubt about both the number of jobs that could be produced and the wages such jobs would pay. There were also concerns about what would happen to other area employers if high-wage jobs did materialize and other employers couldn’t compete. Colleen Kunz asked what would happen to local law enforcement or the WSH if they lost employees and weren’t able to raise wages to compete due to budget constraints. Kunz said she used to work at WSH.

“If they lose employees then they’re struggling to keep going. We already know the state is broke and the wages will not increase,” she said. “If they took people and WSH couldn’t function, then we’ve lost something we’ve had here forever and then we have a whole community without jobs.” 

Commissioner Welling said that was a valid concern, but added, “If you have jobs, people are going to want to fill them. Do you want a place with jobs or a place with no jobs?” However, he did acknowledge that law enforcement agencies would likely have to raise wages if higher-paying jobs did materialize. 

When community members expressed concerns about the facility being a private, for-profit prison, Commissioner Welling said he didn’t see that as a problem and that “private enterprise seems to do a better job at just about anything.” 

He also said, “From what we see, this is a facility that detains people, not a prison. Maybe we’re being led down a primrose path, but we’re going to see when we go check it out.” 

Howieson acknowledged the humanitarian aspects but said she would challenge everyone to educate themselves on the purpose behind the facilities, which is to “provide a more civilized and humane location” than a jail or prison. She also said from a legal services standpoint, it would actually be beneficial because nearby immigration attorneys in Jackson Hole would have a shorter drive to meet with clients here than the current drive to the Salt Lake City area. 

When pressed for details about timelines, Welling said, “All we know is they’re in the process of looking at locations. The ICE people — I don’t even know what that acronym even means right now — but they’re waiting for Congress to fund this thing. Once it is, then it can go out to bid and MTC can submit a bid.” 

When community members continued to press for details and especially guarantees about numbers of jobs, wages and training, Welling said they had no guarantees and that people were asking for answers they didn’t have. 

Welling did say they were looking at this as a long-term facility to bring revenue into the community and added that there were plans to meet with Gov. Matt Mead next week. 

Ultimately, the commissioners said there would be opportunities for public input if the Department of Homeland Security approved the location and the proposal moved forward. “We had very little negative feedback at first,” Commissioner Welling said. “The experience I’m having right now is people who feel like they don’t have enough information to make a decision one way or another.”

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