Immigration advocates eye York County as ICE detention facilities close across country

Matt Enright
York Dispatch
Around two dozen gather for the "Free Our Loved Ones" vigil held outside York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, on Human Rights Day, Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Organizations including MILPA (Movement of Immigrant Leaders in Pennsylvania), New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, VietLead and Juntos, based in Philadelphia, hosted the event urging officials to release those being detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the York Detention Center, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Local officials have suggested York County could walk away from a contract to house immigration detainees if federal officials don't offer better terms — and immigration advocates say that wouldn't necessarily be a good thing for detainees.

As other Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers around the state and country close, these advocates are keeping a close eye on York County, where officials have triggered a 120-day negotiation period to see if a new contract can be worked out before Aug. 12.

County spokesperson Mark Walters said Friday that negotiations were ongoing.

As the director of Aldea-People's Justice Center in Reading, Berks County, Bridget Cambria provides services to people detained in the state. 

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"I'm hopeful that there's a positive result in the end, but I am concerned that if the contract ends and they don't detain folks in ICE custody there, which they absolutely shouldn't, what would happen to those people afterward," she said.

"My fear would be that they transfer them and continue their detention elsewhere," Cambria added. "We don't often see ICE doing the right thing without being forced to do the right thing." 

York County's negotiations with ICE come at a time when communities are reevaluating their decisions to host detention facilities:

  • A bill prohibiting public and private contractors from entering into, renewing or expanding contracts with ICE is advancing through the New Jersey legislature.
  • The Washington state legislature has passed a bill banning private detention facilities in the state. The only private detention facility in Washington state, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, is under contract with ICE to house detainees.
  • The Northern Oregon Regional Correction Facility voted to end its contract with ICE in August 2020.
  • ICE is also working to end its contract with the Dartmouth jail in Bristol County, Massachusetts, and Irwin County Detention Center in Irwin County, Georgia. Both have come under fire for alleged abuses of the immigrants housed there.
  • In Butler County, Ohio, Sheriff Richard Jones has ended a contract with ICE in what he says is an effort to ensure that immigrants do not get shipped to his facility then released on a technicality. Abuse has also been alleged to have taken place there.

Cambria clarified what happens to detainees when facilities closed.

"It didn't necessarily mean that people were released, even though the advocates would of course want people to be released who are in immigration detention," she said.

Instead, ICE transferred those detainees to other facilities for detention, instead of a more humane way of treating detainees like releasing them on their own recognizance.

ICE isn't saying what would happen to the detainees at the York County Prison if the federal detention center there closes.

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement," an ICE official said through email when asked where detainees would be sent if the contract with York County Prison ended. "The contract for York County Prison is currently under negotiations for renewal."

Cambria said that York County's contract ending would be a huge victory for those who don't want to see people detained, but it wouldn't be for the right reason. The holdup so far has been about the revenue.

York County Prison is one of 134 facilities around the country that ICE contracts with, according to ICE's website. The prison currently houses more than 400 detainees, according to an ICE spokesperson. The bed-day rate for detainees is  $108, meaning the county is paid $108 a day per detainee.

The county's intergovernmental service agreement expired at the end of 2019, Walters has said. An extension was approved in December 2019 to allow continued negotiations for an agreement with an updated bed-day rate and other detention standards.

“We have our 2021 budget, which is predicated on the fact that we get a revenue stream for at least 500 detainees per day. That’s going to drop,”  York County Commissioner Doug Hoke, who also is president of the county prison board, said in May. “So the prison board said, ‘We’re not going to be able to operate if we’re not going to have a revenue stream that at least pays the bills for York County to house these detainees.’”

York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler said ICE's current offer "wasn't something that made sense for us.

"We are optimistic that we might work something out, but at the end of the day we had to look at what ICE was asking of us and what we are able to deliver on our end," she said last month.

Cambria said that while ending contracts in Bristol and Irwin were not hard choices because of the alleged abuse, what's happening beyond that is a movement of outrage against ICE using its authority to harm people when they don't have to or using detention unnecessarily.

"The numbers that the current administration budgeted for are 32,500. So that means the government, even though they're closing these facilities with outrageous abuse of practices, they've still budgeted for the detention of 32,500 people in immigration detention that's noncriminal," she said. "So it doesn't look like ICE themselves are going to be the ones to end these contracts, except in the cases where it's a no-brainer." 

What woul help, Cambria said, would be counties and organizers working to show why detention is harmful and not needed.

It's been nearly 30 years since the York County Prison first started housing immigration detainees after the Golden Venture ship ran aground in 1993 and 154 Chinese immigrants were taken into custody.

Since then, the prison has housed thousands of detainees, which has resulted in revenue for the county. Last year, the prison received $18.4 million for housing federal detainees. As of Friday, the prison was housing 416 detainees.