Will regional ICE facility close? Negotiations continue

Illegal immigrants from Charlotte County and other ICE detainees may soon be housed in a different facility. As of the end of March, the Town of Farmville will be terminating its contract with the local Immigration Centers of America (ICA) facility. And while one neighboring county is negotiating to take over the contract, nothing is currently set in stone in regards to a regional ICE facility.

In neighboring Prince Edward County, supervisors are considering getting into business with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). During their Tuesday, Feb. 13 meeting, after consulting their attorney in closed session, supervisors unanimously voted to let county staff continue negotiations with Homeland Security and ICE to provide detention services “similar to those currently done by ICA Farmville.” 

“I think the board of supervisors is kind of exploring the potential benefits of stepping in and assuming the contract with ICE,” said Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley. “We’re not there yet but part of the process is we’re going to put out a request for proposals for detention services. The town council has made a decision to more or less step out of the contract. We’re looking at the weight of potentially stepping into that role.” 

When he says the council, he’s referring to the Farmville Town Council’s decision last September. The Town of Farmville currently has a contract with Immigration Centers of America (ICA), the group operating the ICE jail facility in town. ICE typically looks to partner with a local city, town or county when operating a facility. During their September 2023 meeting, after hearing from a number of Longwood students and town residents over several months, asking them to terminate the contract, the council agreed to let the deal expire. However, they gave a short extension, out to March 29, 2024, just to make sure there were no issues caused by that decision. By issues, we’re referring to the fact a number of Farmville residents work at the ICE facility. They rely on that money to pay bills, buy groceries and cover expenses. Also, the town receives real estate tax, personal property tax, business license and water and sewer fees, along with a per diem fee, a yearly payment made to the town by ICA.

“Council voted to pursue a way out of the Contract without harming the jobs associated with the facility,” Famville Mayor Brian Vincent said. “That was a signal to ICA that motivated them to find another entity for the intergovernmental agreement. As evident by the vote last night, it seems a potential agreement is being pursued by Prince Edward. Our extension runs until March 29, and I have had no negotiations with ICA Farmville since that extension was put in place.” 

Why does ICE facility need partners? 

So Farmville is stepping aside and Prince Edward is considering filling that role. Before we look at financial numbers or anything like that, let’s answer a question. Why does ICE need a city, county or town to partner with? 

Nobody at ICE would give The Gazette an explanation for that. Instead, we turned to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). It provides auditing and investigative services for Congress. In a January 2021 report, the GAO stated that by using towns as a “middleman”, agencies like ICE bypass some requirements.

“The agency is typically able to enter into (agreements) more quickly than contracts because (agreements) include fewer requirements and less documentation than contracts,” the GAO report said. “For example, unlike contract requirements, according to ICE guidance there is no legal requirement to competitively award an IGSA. Further, when awarding an IGSA, ICE is not required to evaluate the past performance of detention facility operators. Under (contracts), however, ICE requires that prospective contractors submit information on their performance in recent contracts.”

Let’s back up and spotlight those last two sentences. Under a “middleman” agreement like ICA currently has with Farmville, federal immigration officials aren’t required to see how the facility has operated in the past. Under a standard contract, past performance is considered before the deal is signed. That’s not the case here.

The National Immigrant Justice Center echoed that in a policy brief they shared with The Gazette.

“These (agreements) usually entail a “pass-through” arrangement, allowing local officials to act as middlemen for ICE and private companies,” the brief said. “With these agreements, ICE contracts with local governments, side-stepping procurement laws that govern contracts with private companies. The counties or municipalities hosting the detention centers then contract directly with the same private companies that operate the facilities, receiving kick-back funds from the private operators. The most recent GAO findings assert that ICE uses (agreements) intentionally to bypass procurement laws and open government requirements.”

Why did Farmville step away?

Before we touch on the current situation, it’s also worth mentioning why the town council decided to step away from their agreement. The best way to describe the town’s relationship with the ICA facility is complicated. Over the last three years, the facility has attracted a number of headlines, even making national news at one point, and not in a good way. In 2020, 93% of detainees at the facility tested positive for COVID-19. One of them, 72-year-old Canadian national James Thomas Hill, died after catching the virus.

Soon after, it was shut down until July 2022, when a settlement was reached, allowing the facility to reopen with restrictions. For the next year, the center can hold no more than 180 people at one time. Since the facility’s reopened, multiple family members of those detained have come before council, saying conditions hurt their loved ones’ health and asking for the contract to be terminated.

The headlines didn’t stop there. In August, the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the detention center, claiming that people were being held long after they had won their immigration cases. Both German Fuentes and a man identified as “Mr. Gonzalez” were used as examples. Both had won their cases, receiving permission to stay in this country. Despite that, three months after winning, both were still being held at the Farmville facility. ACLU officials claimed that since they started tracking cases in Virginia, 13 of 14 had continued to be detained after winning for more than three months.

Late in August, ICE officials responded to the lawsuit, releasing both men from the Farmville facility, while telling The Gazette they couldn’t comment. After all of this, Farmville council members were ready to part ways. 

What’s in the deal? 

One of the key parts of what Prince Edward supervisors voted on Tuesday night is what’s not included. They’re discussing the future with ICE, not with ICA Farmville. In fact, Prince Edward plans to put out an RFP, that is a request for proposals, inviting any group offering detention services to make their pitch. 

“You’re going to have to meet all the requirements of ICE, so my guess is very few facilities will be able to meet the security, the medical and other needs that come along with that,” Stanley said. 

So what does a city, county or town get in exchange for their partnership? That depends on what’s negotiated and with who. As we mentioned, Farmville receives a per diem payment each year from ICA, part of the agreement that was negotiated. 

The amount of the per diem has shifted over the years, based on the number of detainees. In fiscal year 2019, it was $259,016. One year later, that dropped to $210,670. In fiscal year 2021, that dropped to $182,500 and the reduction continued from there. In fiscal year 2022, the town received $167,000 and this past fiscal year, the per diem was $182,500. 

Next steps for ICE facility

Could other counties get involved in the bidding? Yes, that’s possible, as no contract has been signed. ICE officials told The Gazette they couldn’t comment on contract negotiations but acknowledged they have no official partner yet beyond March 29. 

As for Prince Edward’s attempts, the RFP hasn’t been finalized yet, as the vote to work on it just happened Tuesday night. But Stanley said he expects to see some results and be able to present potential candidates to the board within a 60-day period, so that Prince Edward could step in right as the Farmville contract expires, if that’s what the board decides to do.