Exploring the impact of Virginia’s two immigration detention centers
In the U.S. immigration detention is civil detention, yet people detained are in facilities that mirror the country’s criminal incarceration system. Virginia is home to two immigration detention centers.
Virginia is home to two immigration detention centers located in Farmville and Caroline County. Over the years, advocates and impacted families have openly called for the closing of these centers.
At one point during the pandemic, ICA-Farmville, owned and operated by Immigration Centers of America, made national headlines as nearly 90 percent of the people detained in the facility had COVID-19. Allegations of medical neglect, racism, abuse and more have been leveled at both centers.
ICA-Farmville and Caroline County’s contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, are up for renewal this year. ICE told VPM News there is strong intent from the agency to explore negotiations with those facilities.
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KEYRIS MANZANARES: In 2008, the Town of Farmville signed an intergovernmental service agreement, known as an IGSA with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement amidst protests.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: This resulted in the opening of what is now known as the mid- Atlantic's hub for ICE detention.
LUIS OYOLA: When I first learned about Farmville, it sort of seemed obvious to me why people should be pissed off about it. It's jail for people who should have the right to move wherever they decide.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Luis Oyola was only 17 when ICA-Farmville opened. Today, he's the director of organizing at Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville where he is working to see the detention center close.
LUIS OYOLA: I think the best future for them is to close down and for the federal government to put money towards community programs that actually help people through their immigration cases.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: IGSAs allow the federal government to pay localities a per diem rate for holding immigrants in detention. These localities can then contract detention services to a private company. That's the case of ICA-Farmville. The facility is owned and operated by for-profit provider, Immigration Centers of America.
According to ICE, as of March 1st there were 11 people detained at ICA-Farmville. The center's capacity is 732. Documents obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center show on average, Farmville bills ICE over $2 million a month. After paying its private contractor to run the facility the town pockets its percentage. In 2021 that was $200,000 according to their budget. Farmville has come to rely on that income to help pay for essential town services.
BRIAN VINCENT: They're treated like any other business, right? They pay their way. And so, that money then gets poured into the core services that we give to our town residents.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Farmville Mayor Brian Vincent was elected in 2022. He says, while campaigning for mayor not one of his constituents brought up concerns regarding the town's agreement with ICE and ICA.
BRIAN VINCENT: As of this timeframe, there has not been an appetite or a movement to separate from that agreement. But there's always that chance that that happens. But the other side of this is rural Virginia and that facility supplies federal wage jobs and a locality that needs jobs.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: In 2018, this man who we are calling Jose to protect his identity, was picked up by ICE and taken to ICA-Farmville after serving a sentence for a misdemeanor traffic violation.
JOSE: It was because of a traffic violation. The first thing they asked me for at the county detention was for my documentation. Since I didn’t have legal documentation, they gave me an immigration detainer.
LUIS OYOLA: People who are immigrants, when they are convicted, they serve their sentences and then ICE is able to get them and put them in a detention center. So, to people who say it is necessary, why is it necessary to people who just so happen to not be citizens but not necessary for people who just so happen to be citizens? It's arbitrary double standard.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Jose says his time at ICA-Farmville caused him so much stress and trauma there were times he wished to be deported although he had fled El Salvador because of threats to his safety.
JOSE: I thought that for me – it would be better if they deported me. I couldn’t keep living that, I was going to get sick. I don’t understand how there are others who have been in there for more than a year and they never get their court dates, or they keep rescheduling their court dates. It's incredible how even when people are detained, their court dates keep getting pushed back instead of alleviating the process.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: In the United States, immigration detention is civil detention and is not intended to be punishment for criminal convictions. Yet the people detained are in facilities that mirror the country's criminal incarceration system.
LUIS OYOLA: The Immigrant Naturalization Act empowers the federal government to determine that someone in immigration proceedings either awaiting for their court case to be heard or they've lost their case and they are awaiting deportation, that they can be held in detention.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations Field Office Director Russell Hott says, generally speaking, the purpose of detention is to facilitate repatriation and or removal proceedings.
RUSSELL HOTT: I think often, right, especially when we started to see some of the abolish ICE movement, there was definitely a lot of misgivings on the agency's focus overall, you know ultimately, you know, we continue to prioritize our efforts on those individuals that pose the greatest threat to undermine the immigration laws of the U.S.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: But traffic violations like Jose's can often trigger the possibility of deportation and result in what justice advocates call the traffic-stop-to-deportation pipeline.
RUSSELL HOTT: Here, within the Commonwealth, we have a program we refer to as the Criminal Apprehension Program, and its focus is based on individuals who have already been arrested for other state and local charges. Right? We'll interview those individuals, determine whether or not they are subject to removability.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Hott says two detention centers in Virginia are a requisite to the level of activity they are seeing overall.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Caroline Detention facility used to be a jail located in Bowling Green. Caroline County and ICE entered into that five-year agreement in 2018. As detailed in the county's detention fund, they are reimbursed $7 per detainee at a minimum rate of 224 people per day, per month. That's more than half a million dollars a year going into the county's budget.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Opponents of the Caroline Detention Facility have leveled charges of detainee abuse. In 2021, immigrant advocate groups filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of people detained at Caroline Detention outlining medical neglect, solitary confinement and COVID 19 negligence.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: The Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties within the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged the complaints and allegations made against the facility. At last report, they intended to investigate.
LUIS OYOLA: The federal government, you know at the end of the day determines immigration law. But as Virginians, we can decide that we don't want to be part of the detention arm of that anymore and say, you know, the federal government cannot host detention centers in Virginia anymore or hold contracts with local jails for holding immigrants.
KEYRIS MANZANARES: Jose fought deportation for five years and has finally been granted asylum. However, he says that because of the two months he spent in ICE detention, worried he might never see his wife and children again, he is being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder.