Immigration Detention Center Proposal In Florida Pits Town Against Town

In Quiet Corner Of South Florida, A Private Prison Pits Town Against Town

In a quiet patch of palm-lined subdivisions at the edge of the Everglades, a yearlong battle has been brewing over plans to build one of the largest immigrant detention centers in the nation.

The proposal by Corrections Corporation of America to house more than 1,500 undocumented immigrants in this stretch of South Florida suburbia has pitted two towns against one another and prompted a federal lawsuit. Amid increasing community opposition to the project, federal immigration authorities nixed plans last week to locate the for-profit detention center in the 7,500-person town of Southwest Ranches -- a hamlet known mostly for its secluded estates and equestrian trails.

Yet the controversy continues. The town of Southwest Ranches was expecting to receive more than $1 million a year as part of a business agreement with CCA, the nation's largest private prison corporation.

Now that the deal is off, town leaders in Southwest Ranches are on the verge of filing a separate lawsuit against the neighboring City of Pembroke Pines, saying city commissioners interfered with their business plans by refusing to provide water and sewer services to the jail site.

"This was a big deal to the town," said Southwest Ranches Mayor Jeff Nelson. "We're talking potentially well over a million dollars a year. And for a town that has a budget of around 10 million dollars, that's pretty damn significant. It hurts."

Officials in neighboring Pembroke Pines have argued that residents of their city wouldn't see the same benefits, and would experience the downside of having a detention center in their midst.

"What's irresistible for Southwest Ranches isn't just the revenue, it's the fact that they themselves, within their own town limits, would not be impacted in any way," said Pembroke Pines City Commissioner Angelo Castillo. "All of the impacts would fall on Pembroke Pines, and all of the benefits, financially, would flow to Southwest Ranches. So you can perfectly understand why Southwest Ranches, in a selfish way, has no particular worry about introducing a facility like this into the area."

The suburban spat in South Florida sheds light on how local financial incentives tie in to national policy on the detention of undocumented immigrants. Private prison corporations have captured hundreds of millions of dollars from the immigrant detention business over the past decade as the government has embarked on a campaign of increased border security and immigration enforcement.

As the private immigrant detention business has expanded, companies such as CCA and the GEO Group Inc. have entered into revenue-sharing arrangements with local counties and municipalities that agree to house the prisons. In Southwest Ranches, for example, CCA and town officials had an agreement for the town to receive up to 4 percent of the revenues generated every day from the housing of immigrant detainees.

There are similar agreements at other private facilities in Texas and Arizona, according to county documents in those states.

Federal authorities with Immigration and Customs Enforcement tend to contract with local municipalities and counties instead of making direct agreements with private prison corporations to run detention centers. The local governments then sign separate agreements with private corporations to manage the facilities.

Earlier this month, local leaders in Crete, Ill., voted down a plan to house a 750-bed CCA immigrant detention center, in part because the revenue-sharing agreement didn't provide enough money for the town, according to a local trustee.

Plans for a CCA prison in South Florida date back more than a decade. CCA purchased the property for the detention center in unincorporated Broward County, Fla., in 1997.

A few years later, local officials began discussing the formation of a new town, Southwest Ranches, and decided to include the potential prison parcel within town limits because of the financial benefits that could accrue. Although it is legally part of Southwest Ranches, the prison parcel is essentially an island surrounded by the City of Pembroke Pines.

The land remained vacant for years, but in 2010 federal immigration authorities began seeking proposals for a new 1,500-bed detention center in the Miami area.

Southwest Ranches officials and CCA submitted a proposal to ICE in late 2010, and last June the agency "tentatively selected" the site, according to the federal lawsuit over the arrangement.

The plan quickly drew the ire of many residents in both Southwest Ranches and Pembroke Pines. State and national immigrants' rights groups joined the fold.

"Private prison companies are accountable to their shareholders, they're not accountable to us as taxpayers," said Kathy Bird, a campaign leader with the Florida Immigrant Coalition. "Their number one reason for being is to make money, it's not to do a public service."

Protesters set their sights on local politicians and U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who last year wrote a letter in support of the project with Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

A month after penning the letter, Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, received a $1,000 campaign contribution from CCA's PAC. A spokeswoman for Wasserman Schultz did not respond to questions about the detention center.

Jeff Nelson, the Southwest Ranches mayor, said he understood the protests but felt it was his duty to follow through on the CCA detention center -- a project he described as "part of our plans since incorporation."

"I'm not the typical politician who throws the feather in your ear and sees which way the political winds are blowing," Nelson said.

But there were practical problems with moving forward. Southwest Ranches is a small town, without its own sewer and wastewater services. In order to provide those utilities for the detention center, CCA would need to draw on the neighboring city of Pembroke Pines.

Past agreements between the two municipalities had implied that Pembroke Pines would provide water and sewer service to the CCA site when the company needed it. But as opposition to the detention center increased, Pembroke Pines commissioners in March chose to terminate an agreement with Southwest Ranches to provide those services to the detention center.

CCA promptly sued Pembroke Pines in federal court, alleging that the city's was decision was "purely political." The city responded that it was under no formal obligation to provide water services outside of its jurisdiction, and had the right to terminate any prior arrangement.

The federal court case dragged on for months, and ICE announced last week that it was no longer pursuing a detention facility in Southwest Ranches. ICE officials did not respond to specific questions about the decision.

The agency said in a statement that it had "reevaluated its need for an additional detention facility in South Florida."

"We are examining our options for additional detention space in the region and will make the appropriate notifications when a decision about the way forward has been made," the statement read.

Nelson, the Southwest Ranches mayor, said he had grown tired of delays and asked ICE for a final answer earlier this month. Agency officials expressed concerns about the uncertainty over water and sewer issues, and a needed environmental evaluation of the site, he said.

A CCA spokesman, Steve Owen, wrote in an e-mail that there are no alternative plans for the property, which the company still owns. "We are grateful for ICE's tentative selection of our site and Southwest Ranches' interest in partnering with CCA," he wrote.

The litigation between CCA and Pembroke Pines continues, and Southwest Ranches is now considering another suit against its neighbor over the lost revenue from the deal.

Castillo, the Pembroke Pines commissioner, pointed out that ICE's decision to pull out of Southwest Ranches came at the same time the Obama administration announced that certain undocumented immigrants below the age of 30 would not be deported.

"I think that the issue should really just resolve itself, unless you have some spiteful leftover desire to be litigious and point fingers," Castillo said. "ICE has decided that it doesn't want the facility. How can you blame that on Pembroke Pines?"

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