Congressional candidate, immigration lawyer shares inside view of ICE detention centers


EVANSTON — Rawlins native Travis Helm is running for Wyoming’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is currently held by Republican Liz Cheney. Although Helm was raised a Republican and says he wrote papers supporting George H.W. Bush while in middle school, he’s running for office as a Democrat. 

Helm said he changed party affiliation following the misinformation presented to the American people regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, as well as some time spent in Europe witnessing firsthand the different healthcare and other social programs in place. In spite of the party change, Helm said he’s running as a Wyoming Democrat and not as a standard bearer for the national party. 

Helm said he has some crossover ability given his deep Wyoming roots, background and his experience growing up on a cattle ranch and working in the oil and gas industry prior to going to law school. He said, “People who know me know I’m the guy who’s going to show up for you.” 

While Helm was inspired to run for a number of reasons and has stances on multiple issues, including especially healthcare, public lands and a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and get dark money out of politics, as an immigration attorney he has a particular focus on that issue. It stands to reason then that when Helm stopped in Evanston for a couple of days in late July, he had some thoughts to share about the proposal to build an ICE detention center just outside the city. 

Helm said immigration policy is a huge national problem, largely because Congress has done nothing to really change immigration laws for more than 50 years. He said the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 that allowed illegal immigrants who had been present in the country prior to 1982 to apply for legal status eased some of the pressure but didn’t fundamentally change immigration law. 

As a result of congressional inaction, Helm said the executive branch ends up taking the reins and setting the direction of immigration policy, so policies can vary drastically dependent on the stances of each presidential administration. 

For example, under the Obama administration, policy was to focus on deportation of criminals and the removal of those who recently entered the country illegally. The Obama administration also created the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program that allowed young people who were brought to the country illegally as children to apply for legal status. 

Helm said the policy under the Trump administration no longer really has a tiered system that places priority on criminals or recent arrivals, but instead focuses on deportation of all illegal immigrants, including some who had qualified for the DACA program. 

In his work as an immigration attorney, Helm said he visits a detention center in Colorado several times a year and has been able to see for himself what the private centers are like. 

He said he has serious doubts about the claims made by Management and Training Corporation (MTC, the company behind the Evanston proposal) regarding jobs and economic benefits. 

“I definitely don’t see it being the economic boon people think it will be,” he said. “With the Denver facility, I’m not really there all that much, but I feel like I know all the employees and they know me because they’re pretty bare bones.” Helm said much of the janitorial and upkeep work is done by detainees “being paid something like a dollar a day.” 

He said there are also documented cases of counties in other areas around the country “being burned” by these facilities when the companies behind them don’t keep promises or live up to claims of employment numbers or revenues generated. 

In addition to his doubts and concerns about the claimed economic benefits of a detention center, Helm has other concerns. He said being in the country illegally is a civil offense and not a criminal one. “If we’re locking people up for this civil offense, what else will we start to lock people up for?” 

Helm also said he doesn’t believe it makes economic sense to lock up illegal immigrants. “Most of these people want their day in court,” he said, to try to obtain legal status. “They’re not going to miss their court dates, so it makes more economic sense to have the individuals pay for their own ankle bracelets to monitor them than spend enormous sums of money to lock them up in private facilities.” 

He said it’s unrealistic to think the federal government could possibly deport all of the millions of people in the country illegally and said the court backlog for immigration cases is staggering, with currently about 600,000 cases pending. 

Another concern Helm shared is a moral one. He said the U.S. is a country that focuses on family values, yet a huge number of illegal immigrants have spouses and/or children who are U.S. citizens. “We’re breaking up families,” he said. “Where is the sanctity of family and marriage in that?” 

Helm said, especially in Wyoming, immigrants are those who want to be in the state and are part of our communities. He said during times of boom and bust, many immigrants are those who have stayed long-term and built lives in Wyoming. He doesn’t believe we should be “discarding” such people. “Especially the DACA kids and young adults, we should be fighting to keep them,” he said, “not using them as a tennis ball between the two national parties.” 

Finally, Helm was a bit incredulous at the proposed location for the detention center next to the Bear River State Park. “They want to put it over by the beautiful park?” 

One aspect of immigration law Helm spends a lot of time working in is that of human trafficking. He said most people think of sexual exploitation when they hear the term, but in actuality labor trafficking is the number two criminal enterprise in the world. 

He said what commonly happens is people in other countries, such as the Philippines, are promised well-paying jobs and room and board in the United States by businesses exploiting the labor. After they arrive they find themselves stuck in situations earning little money, with no recourse or path to take. 

Helm said helping people who love this country and who want to work hard and contribute find a way to stay is very gratifying and said it’s a bonus to have clients who are full of gratitude for his services. 

As for his congressional run, Helm said he’d like to see Rod Miller as his Republican challenger. “We’d show the country how it’s done,” he said, adding the two – who have known one another for years — could travel together to campaign. He said people are tired of the partisanship, especially in Wyoming.

“We need each other in every community in Wyoming,” he said. “We can’t afford to drive people out because of politics.”

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