Concerns raised over Farmville ICE detention center

Published 9:32 am Tuesday, August 2, 2022

FARMVILLE — Should the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detention center reopen in Farmville? Former detainees and advocates are concerned with a July 6 settlement that will allow the privately run center to resume operations under certain restrictions. 

The Farmville ICE detention center, managed by Immigration Centers of America (ICA), made nationwide headlines in 2020 for a massive COVID-19 outbreak, which saw  93% of detainees test positive and one death. The facility hasn’t been able to accept new transfers since Aug. 2020, following an injunction ordered by a federal judge.

An ICE spokesperson said in a statement last week the agency will not comment on pending litigation or its outcomes, although the agency plans to continue use of the detention facility at this time. 

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“The health, welfare and safety of those in custody is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” the statement said.

Former Detainees Share Their Stories

One man who was held at the Farmville ICE detention center said the statement doesn’t match up with how he was treated when housed there.

Alex, 29, walked alone for seven days and nights, crossed three borders and battled intense hunger as he traveled to the United States from his home country of El Salvador. He made the difficult decision to leave his grandparents at 16 in an attempt to escape poverty and create a better life for him and his family. 

Alex successfully immigrated to the U.S., and over the next 10 years was employed, reunited with his mom and met and had a son with his current wife. He was later deported in 2020 after being detained for six months in ICA-Farmville.

“The fact it’s reopening means that people are having to be separated from their family,” Alex said. “That’s not good.”

In Aug. 2019, law enforcement in Arlington County began investigating his citizenship status after he was pulled over for a minor car accident. He was detained at the county immigration office for a day after it was revealed he wasn’t a legal U.S. citizen, and later transported to the Farmville ICE detention center. 

Alex spent the next six months separated with almost no contact from his family in the facility, enduring what he called “a very traumatic experience.” He was detained in the facility through February 2020, experiencing first-hand the start of the disastrous COVID-19 outbreak.

“Basically they do not treat us like people in there,” Alex said. “They treated us like animals.”

He alleges staff were racist, especially towards Black and Latino people. Those detained there were constantly being told to “go back to where you came from,” among other comments, Alex said.

“The rules are very strict,” Alex said. “The food is very poor quality, there is poor access to medicine and healthcare and there’s no social spaces. You’re basically answering face to face with other people.”

Number of Detainees Drop

ICE officials disagree with Alex’s claim. In the statement, the ICE spokesperson pointed to health care, saying ICE provides comprehensive medical care from the moment a detainees arrives and throughout the entirety of their stay. 

“All immigration detention facilities are bound by strict detention standards to ensure that detainees in ICE custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement,” the statement said. “A multi-layered inspections and oversight program ensures ICE facilities meet a threshold of care as outlined in contracts with facilities, as well as the National Detention Standards (NDS) and the Performance-Based National Detention Standards (PBNDS).”

The facility is also handling fewer detainees than before, declining to single digits since the 2020 injunction. There are two people being detained there as of July 26, according to the ICE statement. 

There will still be limits in place under the new settlement. It restricts the detention center from detaining more than 180 people at a time over the next two years. It can resume accepting transferred individuals only if they are vaccinated, asymptomatic and test negative for COVID-19. All dormitories in the detention center must be capped at 30 individuals and three must remain unoccupied unless needed for the purposes of quarantine or medical isolation.

Doubts Still Remain

Alex doubts the Farmville ICE detention center will place priority on the health and wellbeing of the detainees, even with the new restrictions. He alleges the staff is not trained to deal with sick people and the closest hospital for medical treatment by ambulance is an hour away.

“We have to actually recognize what that facility looks like. The space is very limited, people are very much on top of one another in small spaces,” Alex said. “Social distancing is not possible.”

The Farmville center is “not in line with reality” due to the fact that people can be vaccinated and still catch COVID-19, Alex said.

Another individual whose husband was held at the Farmville facility echoes Alex’s claims.

Angelina Marquez is an organizer for La Colectiva, a Latinx-led organization committed to upholding social justice and equity around immigration support. She was detained at the border in 2014 with her 6-year-old son and is currently battling her deportation proceeding with the immigration court. In 2018, her husband was later detained at ICA-Farmville where he spent the next two months enduring trauma that Marquez said took years for him to open up about. 

“The facility exists to make profit out of people,” Marquez said. “We’re human beings, all we want is respect and dignity and to recognize it’s not happening in the Farmville facility.”

Town Council Urged to Close Facility

On July 13, organizers from Free Them All VA gave testimonies on behalf of previous ICA-Farmville detainees during the public comment period of the Town Council meeting, urging them to close down the facility.

“Many people lost their families, their children,” said a former detainee at the meeting. “Many were deported, they are suffering. I really want that detention center to shut down and close.”

ICA-Farmville director Jeff Crawford was contacted multiple times but did not respond to those requests and could not be reached for comment. 

Council members and the mayor of Farmville had no comments following the testimonies. Farmville Mayor David Whitus did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.