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How one Minn. town is weighing the morals and economics of immigrant detention

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Pine Island mayor Rod Steele
Pine Island Mayor Rod Steele said he and his fellow City Council members would be foolish not to consider the substantial economic benefit a possible immigration detention center would bring the community.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

As a national debate over immigration reaches fever pitch, residents of a southeastern Minnesota town are preparing for what likely will be their own politically charged discussion over a potential new immigrant detention center.

Pine Island, a town of about 3,300, just 20 minutes north of Rochester, is being eyed by a private prison company looking to build a facility there. Over the last year, representatives from the Utah-based firm Management and Training Corporation (MTC)  have visited the site at least twice, and city officials are interested in the hundreds of new jobs such a center could bring.

"When you look at the economic driver, it's a big deal," said Mayor Rod Steele, who said he's watched too many young people leave Pine Island for work after graduating. 

"If they don't work at the dairy or at the school, there's no jobs," he said. "If we could get into a situation where we could create some jobs for our young people, we would love that. We want to see them stick around."

While building the facility in Pine Island is still far from certain and local officials say they haven't endorsed the project yet, residents there are already weighing their personal views of the Trump administration's immigration policies against the economic benefit of a new, large employer. 

Paul Wiens and Mark Stenberg are long-time friends.
Paul Wiens and Mark Stenberg are long-time friends, but sit on opposite sides of the political divide.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Some remain wary. Mark Stenberg and Paul Wiens are two friends on opposite ends of the political spectrum; Stenberg calls himself a "Wellstone Democrat," while Wiens supports President Trump. Yet neither is eager to embrace a new immigrant detention center.

Wiens generally agrees with Trump's immigration policies. But he said he also recognizes how important immigrants are to the success of his own business, which produces and sells grass-fed meats. He and his daughters also have security concerns about the potential 640-bed detention center, which he said would sit on land next door to his property.

Stenberg, the Democrat, worries about how the detainees would be treated.

"These are not widgets," he said "They're humans."

Things started coming together in the fall of 2017, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a public notice that it was considering potential sites across the country for five new detention centers, including one near St. Paul.

MTC submitted a response to ICE. Pine Island is one site MTC is vetting, and it's one of several being considered by ICE for the Twin Cities.

Both ICE and MTC declined to comment for this story. 

But Pine Island officials say the company has its eye on a vast, empty plot of privately owned land called Elk Run. A decade ago, Elk Run was slated to become a $1 billion biotech business park. The state's transportation department even built a new interchange anticipating more traffic there. But after a series of setbacks, the project fell through.

Steele, the mayor, said the prospect of finally developing Elk Run — a potential source of significant property tax income — and the prospect of up to 200 jobs that would come with the detention center is why city officials are interested in the facility. Earlier this month, the city council passed a resolution effectively saying they would consider the project.

Steele said because the facility would be built by a private company on private land, the city would be involved to the extent of approving new permits, executing zoning and expanding infrastructure if necessary.

Building new facilities in the upper Midwest is part of ICE's long-term strategy to detain more people who are waiting for their hearings or to be deported, said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director of The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.  

In 1980, 54 people nationwide on an average daily basis were in detention; today, that number is more than 45,000, Garnett McKenzie said.

Garnett McKenzie said the private prison industry has been deeply involved in this expansion.

"As an industry, they have done a significant amount of lobbying to increase immigration detention as part of their business model," she said.  

MTC already operates three ICE facilities in the southwest, and says on its website it has no role in the administration's immigration policies. 

Joe Mish has lived in Pine Island for 30 years and teaches music in the local schools. He said local officials are missing the big picture by focusing so intently on the promise of jobs. 

Pine Island music teacher Joe Mish
Over coffee, Pine Island music teacher Joe Mish says an immigration detention center in Pine Island doesn't represent the values of his town.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

"I've heard people say you have to separate the morality out of the economics, and I just don't see it that way," said Mish, who said he'll work to oppose the project. "I don't think it's reflective of the people who are in this community."

And if the facility does move ahead, city officials say, there will be many opportunities for public comment.