By Peter Galuszka
Surrounded by coils of security wire, the cream-colored metal complex sits in a small valley just outside Farmville, 60 miles southwest of Richmond. On the ridges above the private Immigration Centers of America-Farmville detention facility, a row of signs warns: “No photos or filming.”
Inside the facility’s entry, just before the airport-style metal detector, displays in Spanish and English warn visitors of a strict dress code. Women’s shorts “shall cover customarily covered areas of the anatomy, including the buttocks and groin area, both when standing and sitting.” For men, muscle shirts and gang colors are verboten. Everyone must wear shoes.
The $21 million jail, opened two years ago by three Richmond businessmen with federal approval, has the feel of a gulag for Spanish speakers. The 1,000 or so detainees inside tend to be Latin Americans who arrived to take low-paying jobs and lack proper visa documents. Some may have committed crimes and await deportation.
Indeed, the ICA-America-Farmville facility is a touchstone of the thorny issue of illegal immigrants who number about 11 million in this country. The privatized jail was created a few years ago during the height of an anti-immigrant craze that was a battle cry for the tea party and some Republicans, such as Prince William County supervisor Corey A. Stewart, who promoted Arizona-style laws to make it easier for police to arrest people they suspect of being in the country illegally.
The mood, however, is shifting rapidly. Republicans are moderating their tough stances after Mitt Romney garnered only 27 percent of Latino voters in the presidential election. President Barack Obama made comprehensive immigration reform a highlight of his Feb. 12 State of the Union address. “Both sides realize that the Hispanic vote is very important,” says Michael Zajur, president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He hopes a comprehensive reform plan that allows illegal immigrants to become legal will be in place within two years.
The problem goes far beyond Latin American newcomers here to handle the dirty jobs that the American-born don’t want, such as washing dishes or working in poultry factories. The country’s most significant federal immigrant law, passed in 1952, didn’t anticipate the country’s drastic need for high-tech workers that American schools can’t supply. Policies for H-1B visas, which allow American businesses to temporarily hire foreign-born workers, limit annual admission to 60,000.
High-tech companies in Richmond and Northern Virginia are desperate for qualified engineers and computer experts. The situation, says Debra J. C. Dowd, an immigration lawyer at Richmond’s LeClairRyan law firm, has become so strained that employers take bizarre steps to meet their need for foreign talent.
Some West Coast technology companies, for example, couldn’t get visas for needed foreigners. So they leased a cruise ship and set it up with work stations, Dowd says. The foreign engineers worked aboard ship as it cruised just off the U.S. coast and came into port to attend business meetings. That way, the workers could get into the country as tourists and then return to the ship and sail off to safe waters again.
“It is a function of not being able to find the workers they need,” Dowd says, adding that it also speaks to the weakness of the American educational system. In another example, Facebook had to place 80 foreign engineers in Dublin, Ireland, because it couldn’t get visas for them to work in California, The New York Times reports.
Solutions to such problems include allowing more foreign workers in high demand into the country, speeding up the visa process and perhaps allowing guest workers in for extended periods.
A major sticking point is how to handle the 11 million or so people who are living in the country without legal documentation. Early attempts to address this issue, including an initiative by former President George W. Bush that was regarded as progressive, were shot down by hard-liners who demand deportation for illegal immigrants. Some say a general amnesty is the only answer. The Dream Act, first proposed in 2001, would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country if they arrived as minors, graduate from high school and are of good moral character.
Obama appears to be taking the middle ground by proposing a clear path to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants, but cautions against placing them ahead of foreign nationals who already are here legally. With the growing power of the Latino vote, such proposals stand a chance of passing both houses of Congress.
Since Obama took office, some 400,000 people have been deported, although Dowd says that the Obama administration has been trying to limit deportation to people who have committed serious crimes. Others see the president as not moving very far with immigration. “He should stop the deportations,” says Isabel Castillo, a waitress and immigration rights activist from Harrisonburg, who says Obama is “hypocritical” for voicing support for reform but doing little.
Castillo is an example of how muddled the immigration bureaucracy is. Now 28, Castillo arrived in the United States without documents when she was 6 years old. In 2004, her stepfather petitioned for her citizenship, she says, but the waiting list dates back to 1993.
Should Congress vote for comprehensive reform, what happens to facilities such as ICA-Farmville and other privately owned detention operations in other states? One problem for the ICA-Farmville’s owners is that their success depends on a steady stream of prisoners being investigated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, known as Ice, of the Homeland Security Department, or have been convicted of a serious crimes and will be deported. There will be a need for detention facilities, Dowd says, “but perhaps not as many of them.”
Farmville officials have said they like having the detention facility because the city can get paid $1 to $2 per day per prisoner in fees and it provides jobs.
The ICA-Farmville, built by Richmond businessmen Ken Newsome, Warren Coleman and Russell Harper, does not readily give out information about its operations. In the entrance way to the detention center, a man identifies himself as Jeff Crawford and says he’s the facility director, but declines to speak with Style Weekly. Repeated telephone calls to immigration officials in Fairfax and Washington weren’t returned by press time.
It may take several years, but comprehensive immigration reform could seriously impact ICA-Farmville’s business plans if not put it out of business. “You have plenty of serious criminals out on the streets,” Zajur says. “We have people who only want to better their lives. We don’t need to put those people in a facility like that.”
Note: This post first appeared in Style Weekly.