EVANSTON — Uinta County and Evanston officials have been asked to consider allowing Management and Training Corporation (MTC) to build an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility just outside Evanston city limits. MTC has projected that the facility would employ between 100-150 employees, which could boost Evanston’s lagging economy and provide a new income stream for the county.
Both the Evanston City Council and the Uinta County Commission voted in support of the project on June 6.
Uinta County Clerk Lana Wilcox, who was asked to be spokesperson for Uinta County and its commissioners on this project, said she thinks the proposed facility has the potential to be one of the best things to happen to the county in a very long time.
Wilcox touted the jobs it could bring, along with the increase to property tax income for the county, revenue that has dropped drastically due to a downturn in the oil and gas industries.
Even former MTC employee Berl Goff, who’s been very critical of the company and its practices, said MTC’s estimate of hiring 100-150 jobs is probably accurate. MTC Vice President of Corrections Marketing Mike Murphy said at a May 23 town hall meeting in Evanston that starting pay for corrections officers would be $21 per hour and would include a full benefit package (Wilcox said the same position at the county jail pays $18.50 per hour and also includes benefits).
Wilcox said MTC approached the county and said the company would need 40-60 acres for the site. The proposed area for the project is near Bear River State Park, the area people often refer to as “the road to nowhere.” Wilcox said it would most likely be on the back portion of the land, so it wouldn’t hinder future projects should the county choose to develop the front portion.
Wilcox said she researched several of the incidents reported at facilities managed by MTC and passed that information on to the county commissioners, who met with MTC a couple of weeks ago.
“They talked about those … issues that had come up,” Wilcox said. “Most of them were with their prisons, because they also run prisons.” She added that one of the incidents was also “very political,” and didn’t appear to be relevant to what the company is proposing for Uinta County.
She said Evanston City Clerk Amy Grenfell and Evanston Community Development Coordinator Mieke Madrid reached out to city and county officials where the current three ICE detention centers are run by MTC.
“All of the feedback that they got back from the city clerks [and] the county clerks was positive,” Wilcox said. “… They said they (MTC) were good employers, they haven’t had any problems with them, that they’ve been good for the community.”
Wilcox said local officials have done some due diligence and will continue to do so.
“… I’ve talked to the commissioners about maybe one or two of them going out to one of their (MTC’s) current facilities and seeing what it looks like,” Wilcox said. “… That way it will give them an actual image of what one of these facilities looks like. These facilities are all … built similarly.”
At the May 23 town hall meeting, Mayor Kent Williams said the facility would look much like a community college with a fence around it, though the Calexico facility — with multiple fences and rows of razor wire — wouldn’t likely be mistaken for a college campus.
Wilcox explained what type of detainees ICE, which operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, would send to the facility.
“Basically it’s a pass-through facility for people who are detained by ICE,” Wilcox said.
Those who have taken steps toward asylum or citizenship could be released. However, Wilcox said, local residents shouldn’t expect an influx of immigrants; ICE would be required to transport those deemed OK for release back to where they were originally detained. Other detainees will be deported to their home countries.
But, according to Wilcox, the door is open for the facility to house immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
“There is a chance that we could have illegal immigrants that have some other charges against them — law enforcement-type charges against them,” she said. “There is a portion of that facility that would house them — a more secure area — but you’re not going to have murderers and rapists in there, it’s [for] more lower-type crime stuff.”
Goff, who has been in the corrections field for nearly 20 years — including at positions of deputy warden and chief of security — said the facility could actually house some hardened criminals.
“You’ll also have people handled by ICE who have been released from federal prisons” and now need to be deported, Goff said. “But they didn’t go to prison for singing too loud in their church choir — they did something wrong.”
Goff said the facility would likely house immigrants who have been deported five, six, seven times who just keep coming back to the U.S. He also said it’s common for ICE detention centers to house immigrants who are mentally ill.
Goff, who now lives in Ohio, said he believes there are security risks at ICE facilities. He said hiring 18 year olds with minimal training is dangerous. He also said guards and the public could be in danger.
“ICE would not allow us to have live ammunition on the perimeter patrol vehicles that we had,” Goff said. “We had to have less-than-lethal ammunition in case someone tried to go over the fence.”
Issa Arnita, MTC’s communications director, told the Herald those decisions, along with many others, would be dictated by ICE.
“Appropriate use of force policies, including the use of any weapons, are determined by the government agency like Immigration and Customs Enforcement or a state corrections agency,” he said. “These decisions are not decided by companies like MTC.”
Goff also expressed concern about who would pay for the project.
He said MTC and other prison management companies have convinced communities to build corrections facilities then the private companies have abandoned them years later.
“They can come into a small town and wave a bunch of money around so city councilors and county commissioners can boost their budget,” Goff said. “The city built the facility in Haskell, Texas, at the behest of MTC, then three years later MTC walked away. [Now] it’s sitting there empty.”
But Wilcox said that’s not the case for MTC’s proposal for Uinta County. She said the private company would pay to build and maintain the facility, and the county would still own the land on which it would sit.
“The county and the city will put no money into it,” she said.
Now that the company has official support from the city and county, it is pursuing either a 5-year or a 10-year contract with ICE. If the contract isn’t renewed, which Wilcox said is very unlikely, MTC would turn the building over to the county at zero cost to Uinta County.
Wilcox said that possible scenario hasn’t been completely fleshed out as the proposal is still in its infancy stage. She stressed that the resolutions passed in support of the project didn’t make the facility a done deal. Documented initial support from local government was merely one requirement in order for MTC to request a contract with ICE in hopes to move forward with the project.
Arnita said the company would rather not comment on the possibility or likelihood of losing an ICE contract, calling it merely hypothetical.
“We are working to get a contract with ICE that meets their needs and provides economic benefits to the local community for many years to come,” he told the Herald last week.
Since MTC is now waiting for a response from ICE, Arnita said he can’t give a timeline for the project or when the next steps could take place.
Wilcox said that while MTC might have considered other areas for the facility, she believes Uinta County is the company’s top choice to build, and MTC is eager to get the ball rolling.
“If they got the go, I think they’d want to put a shovel in the ground today,” Wilcox said. “They’re ready.”