Prince Edward supervisors make a decision about ICE contract

Published 5:47 am Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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One month after opening negotiations, Prince Edward supervisors have made a decision about ICE. By a unanimous vote at the end of their Tuesday, March 12 meeting, supervisors agreed to enter into a contract with the Department of Homeland Security, as well as a subcontract with Abyon LLC. 

Now if that last name doesn’t sound familiar, it’s not surprising. It hasn’t been around that long. 

Farmville is home to a privately owned detention center called ICA or Immigration Centers of America, located at 508 Waterworks Road. ICA Farmville’s reputation has been far from stellar over the last decade. Over the last three years alone, 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.

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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. 

Now what does that have to do with Abyon LLC? Well, Abyon is ICA’s “sister” company, created in December 2023 and run by the same ownership group. ICA Farmville had a contract with the Farmville town council, one that expires this month. Had the council agreed to renew, it would have been with Abyon, not ICA Farmville. Instead, the town council opted to scrap their contract and in February, Prince Edward supervisors voted to open negotiations about taking over the contract. With Tuesday’s vote, that will officially take place. 

Longwood students speak out 

Tuesday’s vote came at the end of a nearly three-hour meeting, after a roughly 30-minute closed session with the county attorney. Without discussion, supervisors came out of the closed session, made a motion and unanimously agreed to enter into a contract. 

While supervisors didn’t speak on the subject, a number of Longwood University students showed up at the beginning of the meeting, asking them to reconsider working with Abyon. 

“To enter this contract and to allow this facility to continue operating is doing a disservice to the community you have been elected to serve,” argued Sarah Gandam. In addition to being a senior at Longwood, she also serves as president of the university’s Asian Student Involvement Association. 

Gandam argued that the county puts itself at risk of lawsuits by entering into a contract with Abyon, due to the issues at the facility. 

“From the Mumps outbreak in 2019 to the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the facility has continued to demonstrate its inability to take care of the health of the detained individuals,” Gandam argued.

Her comments were echoed by Longwood Black Student Association President Miles Johnson, who pointed out the history of human rights violations that had been reported at ICA Farmville. 

“These human rights violations will continue to persist if this institution continues to operate in the future,” Johnson said. “The unfortunate effect of this facility is that it profits off the suffering of human beings. This institution and other institutions like it serve as another tool of oppression to dehumanize and minimize minority communities.” 

Demands for Prince Edward supervisors

Other students appeared confused at times. Some called for the county to shut the facility down and free all those detained inside. Others wanted supervisors to overturn the Farmville council decision and immediately terminate the town’s contract with ICE, which expires at the end of this month. To be clear, Prince Edward supervisors can’t do any of those things. 

As we detailed previously, The Herald reached out earlier this year to both Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. All of them directed us to the Detention Facility Termination of Agreement documents. Basically, this explains how a facility can be shut down and what happens to the detainees if it does. 

First, the documents state 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 of Farmville or Prince Edward County.

Second, 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,” the Termination of Agreement document states. 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.

Being held too long 

But it wasn’t just Longwood students speaking out against the contract on Tuesday. Amber Qureshi is a staff attorney with the National Immigration Project. She talked about some of her current cases, similar to lawsuits we reported on last year. These cases involve detainees who won their court cases, where judges approved their request for asylum. Even so, they remain detained for weeks or months after the hearing. 

“Imagine having to go through the immigration system, for months and years detained, finally winning and ICE still locking you up for months,” Qureshi said. 

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) won two similar cases last year involving the Farmville facility, getting their clients released after both spent four extra months after their respective hearings. 

Why partner with Prince Edward supervisors? 

But now we come to the big question. Why does ICA Farmville and other similar operations look for a local government to partner with? 

Nobody at ICE would give The Herald 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. “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 had 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.”