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Immigrant detention center in Va. would be mid-Atlantic's largest

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; C01

The largest immigrant detention center in the mid-Atlantic will soon open in Prince Edward County, an effort to accommodate Virginia's unprecedented surge in detentions of illegal immigrants picked up on criminal charges.

The $21 million, privately run center will house up to 584 immigrant detainees when it opens its doors. Over the next year, it might grow to hold 1,000 prisoners, most of them snagged by the federal government's growing Secure Communities program, which aims to find and deport criminal illegal immigrants.

Last month, Virginia became the second state, after Delaware, to implement the program statewide, requiring jails and prisons to screen prisoners by immigration status and check their fingerprints against the country's immigration database.

With three months left in the fiscal year, the number of illegal immigrants with criminal convictions detained in Virginia and the District has increased by 50 percent from last year's total, to 2,414. Those numbers are expected to increase now that the program is being implemented statewide.

The new facility "is mostly here to address the impact of Secure Communities," said Robert Helwig, assistant director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We do anticipate a surge in detainees."

The immigration debate has grown increasingly polarized, and the Secure Communities program has become a symbol of that division. John T. Morton, head of ICE, calls it the agency's attempt to "secure the nation and protect public safety." But many immigrant advocates, including Enid Gonzalez, a lawyer at CASA of Maryland, say the program "claims to keep violent criminals off the streets, but instead it's just incarcerating innocent busboys."

There's one point on which experts across the spectrum agree: Without additional detention space, the program cannot function. ICE has detained fewer than one-quarter of the immigrants identified by Secure Communities, a range of suspected criminals facing charges as varied as misdemeanors and murder.

"The Obama administration can't expect to increase enforcement measures without increasing detention capacity," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies.

Thankful for new jobs

Enter: the new Farmville center, an expansive, single-story building that fills a 30-acre clearing in the woods on the outskirts of the town, which is about 170 miles southwest of the District.

Richmond-based Immigration Centers of America built the detention center in the last days of the Bush administration, as the number of immigrants in federal custody hit an all-time high. ICA began work on it even before the government committed to sending detainees there. The town was, and still is, largely united in support of the detention center, which is expected to bring 300 jobs to the economically battered town of 7,500.

"They have to send these people somewhere," said Farmville Mayor Sydnor C. Newman Jr. "Thank God they chose Farmville." The town, which has lost manufacturing jobs in recent years, stands to receive about $213,000 a year in revenue from a $1-per-detainee daily fee the company will pay.

Before construction was completed, the project hit a snag: The death of an immigrant detainee at the nearby Piedmont Regional Jail stirred talk of ICE negligence, only two years after an internal investigation found that the jail's medical unit did not meet minimum ICE standards.

Edward Gordon, the jail's medical director and a Farmville council member, still pushed for the new ICE facility.

Another potential holdup was uncertainty about the new Obama administration's immigration policy. In his first days in office, President Obama closed one of the nation's largest immigrant detention centers, in Texas. Would there be a need for a mid-Atlantic hub for ICE operations?

The administration's large-scale expansion of Secure Communities soon answered that question. Since October 2008, the program has checked the legal status of 262,930 immigrants who had been charged with crimes in 95 jurisdictions.

In Virginia, most of those immigrants have been detained in local jails, not ICE facilities. The Farmville center is part of an effort to reduce dependence on outside facilities that house both citizens and illegal immigrants, Helwig said.

Prioritizing cases

The new facility is also meant to relieve a tension between enforcement and detention that began in 2007, when Prince William County gave local police the ability to enforce immigration laws.

Like Secure Communities, that program produced a surge in the identification of illegal immigrants -- "more than ICE could handle," said Tom Guterbock, a University of Virginia professor who led a county-endorsed study of the initiative. After about a year, the crush of detainees in Prince William "forced ICE to say that they would only take the most serious offenders," Guterbock said.

Although the agency maintains that "Secure Communities is not restricted by bed space," as ICE spokesman Cori Bassett said, the recent spike in criminal detainees forced it to announce that the program will allocate limited bed space first to violent offenders.

"They say they're prioritizing dangerous criminals, but we continue to see people suspected of minor crimes who are caught in their net," said Gonzalez, the CASA of Maryland lawyer. "It doesn't matter if they're convicted or not."

In Farmville, Pamela R. DeCamp, managing attorney for the Virginia Legal Aid Society, is waiting for a deluge of new clients. The federal government, which provides funding to Legal Aid, won't let DeCamp represent illegal immigrants.

"But these people have families, and many of them have husbands, wives or children who are U.S. citizens," she said. "If they move to Farmville to be close to their loved one, there's a good chance they'll need our help."

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