By DENA POTTER
March 6, 2009 - 12:49pm
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Nearly 60 years after young black students took historic steps toward desegregation by walking out of their Farmville school to protest its deplorable conditions, the small town is once again at the center of a social movement.
On Saturday, groups from across Virginia plan to protest a detention center being built there to hold illegal immigrants until they can be deported. The say the center and others like it across the U.S. are an extension of failed immigration policy. Some liken for-profit detention centers to modern-day slavery.
Ricardo Juarez, leader of the Washington-based immigrant advocacy group Mexicanos Sin Fronteras (Mexicans Without Borders), said it is fitting to call for justice for immigrants not far from where Moton High School students walked out in 1951. Their protest sparked a lawsuit that joined with others and led to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling that struck down school segregation.
"Today we are living here, we are working here. We have many positive contributions to the social life, so at some point the immigrants' struggle is part of the entire civil rights struggle," Juarez said.
Farmville signed a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in September to house illegal immigrants. The town subcontracted with private investors, Immigration Centers of America-Farmville, who are putting up the $21 million to build the center. ICA will get about $60 per day per detainee from the federal government, while the town will keep $2 each.
Plans call for a 1,040-bed facility that could be expanded to house about 2,500 detainees.
The project's principal investors did not return several messages seeking comment.
Town Manager Gerald Spates said Farmville sought the contract because it would bring jobs and tax revenue, plus it would allow a central location for immigrants now scattered throughout the region in jails. The immigrants are detained even though many have committed no offense other than being in the U.S. illegally.
"These illegal immigrants that were picked up are being put in prisons and they've committed no crime," Spates said. "We thought it would be a good idea to build a facility that was like dormitory-style housing where it wasn't a prison setting and these people were treated humanely."
The facility was expected to be up and running by the end of June, but the deepening recession hindered the financing, Spates said. The investors now have secured the funding, and the center likely will open in September.
Opponents believe it's not too late to stop it.
ICE will not commit to housing detainees there until the facility is finished, and construction has yet to progress very far.
Opponents also hope the change in administrations may work in their favor.
Under former President Bush, the average daily total of ICE detainees in custody grew from 21,000 in 2005 to more than 31,000 in 2008. President Obama has promised a shift away from workplace raids and toward more comprehensive immigration reform.
"The prospect of actually shutting down the building of the prison certainly has some promise to it at this moment," said Les Schmidt, a Catholic priest from Big Stone Gap who has worked to block the center.
Like some other churches, Catholic bishops oppose those for-profit detention centers. Schmidt likened making money off detaining people to slavery.
"In no way do we want to go down that slippery slope where we're even appearing to be buying and selling people, especially to make a profit off them," he said.
But Spates said he sees the project as a win-win for the town of about 7,000. It will create about 200 jobs where the per capital income is $13,552, and it will do it with no financial obligation or risk to the town.
"We're not involved in the political part," he said. "That's up to the federal government. We're looking at it from a standpoint of humanitarian efforts plus the tax base and jobs."
If they can't pull the plug on the detention center, opponents at least want to send the message to Farmville officials, business owners and detention center officials that they will keep close tabs on them.
"We're going to reach out and establish contact with detainees and we're going to be here watching what happens on the inside," said Jeff Winder, an organizer with The People United, a social justice networking group. "We're committed to this."