Stay or go? What will future be for Farmville’s ICE contract?

Published 4:54 am Thursday, October 12, 2023

FARMVILLE – In September, the Farmville town council asked for more information before making a decision. Now they want more time. 

Last month, before deciding to extend or terminate their contract with Immigration Centers of America (ICA), the group operating the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jail facility in town, council members wanted to know what the impact would be. If Farmville ended the contract, would the facility have to shut down? Or would things operate as normal, without any real impact? Wanting more time to get information, council members gave Mayor Brian Vincent the approval to sign a six-month contract extension with ICA. 

The reason this came up is the recent contract between the town and ICA expired on Sept. 15. According to Farmville Town Manager Dr. Scott Davis, officials with the Farmville detention center didn’t send a new version until hours before the council meeting on Sept. 13.

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At that point, council members didn’t want to vote on something they had just received. By unanimous vote in that September meeting, council members asked Davis to look into the ramifications of not signing the contract and report back. To do that, the town administration signed a two-week extension. Then, wanting more time to consider the information, the six-month extension was signed on September 21. 

ICE facility brings bad headlines

The best way to describe the town’s relationship with the facility is complicated. On the one hand, over the last three years, the facility has attracted a number of headlines, even making national news at one point. 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 two years, 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 Herald they couldn’t comment. ICA officials have not responded to requests for comment.  

Concerns for Farmville town council

On the other hand, a number of town residents are employed at the 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. 

The amount of the per diem has shifted over the years. 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. 

Vincent said he appreciated the passion that advocates and activists have shared when they ask for the contract to be terminated. But he added the council has to take a wider view. 

“This is our community, this is our town and we have to take this wider view on how these things affect everyone in our town,” Vincent said. “And while these concerns about detainees are taken to heart, we have other concerns to consider as well.” 

Vincent added that he had multiple people reach out over the last month, mentioning either they or a relative was employed at the facility. 

“One individual reached out because she was supposed to get married this month and was concerned her fiancée was going to lose his job,” Vincent said. “These are concerns we have to take into consideration as well, not just that concern but we have to broadly look at all the concerns and do what’s best for the town.” 

How the ICE process works

One of the things numerous speakers have focused on, when coming before council about this, is a request to not just terminate the contract, but close the facility and free everyone detained inside. To be clear, that is not at all in the Farmville Town Council’s hands. The Herald has spoken with a number of officials from the ACLU, from immigrant rights groups, multiple lawyers and ICE officials. They all say the same. Even if Farmville were to terminate the contract, that doesn’t shut down the facility. And even if the facility were to shut down for any reason, that doesn’t mean everyone inside would be free. 

They would simply be transferred to another ICE facility. As proof, ICE officials provided The Herald with the Detention Facility Termination of Agreement documents. First, the document states any closure would have to be ordered either “by ICE or the agreement holder”, which in this case is the privately owned and operated ICA facility, not the town. 

If the facility were to close, then ICE would “notify the DOCC of the number of noncitizens to be relocated so that it can begin coordinating transfers to other facilities.” DOCC in this case stands for Detention Operations Coordination Center. 

In that situation, the only way for detainees to be released would be the same as it is now, the document said. Either a legal challenge through the court system or ICE officials could decide to let them go. 

“If the facility were to terminate its contract with ICE, ICE could choose to release people currently detained there or transfer them to other facilities,” said ACLU-VA Immigrants’ Rights Attorney Sophia Gregg. “Our hope is that ICE would make individualized custody determinations of those remaining detained to ensure their continued detention is consistent with the administration’s enforcement priorities.”

Why does ICA contract with Farmville?

So why does ICA have a contract with Farmville in that case? Nobody at either ICA or ICE could give The Herald an explanation. In fact, the only one came from 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 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 Herald.

“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.”

What’s next for Farmville town council? 

So now the Farmville town council has six months to collect any further information, weigh options and make a decision about another extension of the agreement or terminating it. The current contract ends on March 29, 2024. 

Echoing what Vice Mayor Chuckie Reid said at the September meeting, Vincent asked people for patience. 

“This council is still moving in the direction of investigating getting out, but as we said (in September), we’re going to do it in a responsible way that still honors our responsibilities to the citizens of this town,” Vincent said. “Be patient, let us work through the process. There has been forward momentum.”