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Protesters question Sherburne Co.'s role in holding immigration detainees

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Protesters sing hymns and hold candles outside of the Sherburne County Jail
Protesters sing hymns and hold candles outside of the Sherburne County Jail in Elk River, Minn., on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When Nathan Mugaas moved to Elk River two years ago, he knew Sherburne County had a large jail that houses some federal inmates.

He said when local residents mentioned the jail, they spoke about it with pride, noting it had once held the 20th 9/11 conspirator, Zacarias Moussaoui.

But it wasn't until about a year ago that Mugaas learned that some of the people being held inside the jail — as many as 300 on any given day — are being held on immigration violations.

That bothered Mugaas, who moved to town to become the pastor of the Elk River Lutheran Church.

Pastor Nathan Mugaas of Elk River Lutheran Church.
Nathan Mugaas, pastor of Elk River Lutheran Church, speaks about the candy canes members of his congregation and others plan to deliver to staff and detainees.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I, for one, don't feel good about housing people just because there's good money in it," Mugaas said.

Sherburne County has the second-largest county jail in Minnesota, capable of housing up to 700 inmates. For more than three decades, the county has contracted with the U.S. government to house immigration detainees and other federal inmates. 

For most of that time, those contracts have attracted little controversy in Sherburne County. They've been a source of jobs and revenue for the local community. 

But in recent months, leaders of two Elk River churches have started voicing concern through press releases and prayer vigils about the county's role in incarcerating immigration detainees — and benefiting financially. They're concerned about the county's expressed interest in expanding the jail to take in more detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Rev. Robin Raudabaugh, pastor of Elk River Union Congregational Church, said after helping a detainee in the jail raise money for bail, members of her congregation decided they needed to do more.

So, over the past few months, members have been holding prayer vigils outside the jail.

On Wednesday, about two dozen protesters, some from Elk River and some from the Twin Cities, formed a circle outside the government center to sing, light candles and pray. Some carried signs: "Stop deportations now." And: "We stand with all immigrants."

They delivered 1,500 candy canes to the jail — one for each inmate, staff member and county commissioner — as a sign of good will.

A Sherburne County Sheriff's employee calls for the sheriff.
A Sherburne County sheriff's employee calls for the sheriff after a group of activists delivered hundred of candy canes to the jail on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I'm hoping that by shining a light on it, that we can raise that awareness and see if this is what we want to be about as a community," Mugaas said.

Filling a need

Sherburne County has a long history of contracts with the U.S. Marshal's Office and the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which later became ICE. It maintains contracts with both agencies.

The county expanded the jail twice, once in 1998 and again in 2005, to create more space for federal inmates. In 2017, the county signed a contract with ICE that guarantees that up to 300 beds will be available for ICE detainees. The agency pays the county at a rate of $100 a day per inmate.

Four other Minnesota counties — Freeborn, Nobles, Kandiyohi and Carver — have similar federal contracts for housing ICE detainees, according to an ICE spokesperson for Minnesota.

Sherburne County receives about $11 million a year, minus expenses, for housing immigration detainees, according to a letter written by Sheriff Joel Brott in November and published in the Elk River Star News. He declined an MPR News request for an interview and tour of the jail.

Revenue from the county's contracts with outside agencies, including ICE, goes into a special fund to cover jail expenses, Brott wrote. It's also helped pay for county projects, he added, including a public safety building in Zimmerman and a new judicial services building. 

"This fund has helped relieve the burden to the county levy and county taxpayers," he wrote.

But members of the two Elk River churches say they don't think the county should be profiting from housing ICE detainees.

Raudabaugh said members of her congregation are bothered by the fact that they benefit financially from the incarceration of detainees. By living in the county, she said, some feel they are complicit in the detentions.

Protesters pray an sing hymns outside of the Sherburne County Jail.
Protesters pray an sing hymns outside of the Sherburne County Jail.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I think that that weighs very heavily on the hearts of many of the folks in my church who would never see themselves as a protester — who are lifelong residents, who are retired school teachers, who are very, very connected in this community," Raudabaugh said. 

But so far, that concern appears to be limited to a small group. Most of the prayer vigils have drawn just half a dozen people or so.

Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said the recent protests of the jail's ICE contracts are the first he's heard of in his 15-year tenure on the county board. He said he thinks people are generally aware of the federal contract and support it.

"We don't judge these people," Schmiesing said. "We're not the reason that they're there, but we are there to fill that need."

Sheriff: Most detainees have previous criminal record

Lawrence Cook, left, lights his candle with Gigi Nauer's.
Lawrence Cook, left, lights his candle with Gigi Nauer's at a protest outside of jail.
Evan Frost | MPR News

From Jan. 1 to Oct. 18 of this year, Brott wrote in his letter to the editor, the Sherburne County Jail housed a total of 1,515 people on behalf of ICE. 

Of those people being detained, just over half were from Mexico. The rest were from 85 different countries, he wrote.

About a quarter of those detainees had no previous criminal convictions, Brott wrote. Of those, he said, most had entered the U.S. illegally or had previously been deported. The rest, he said, had entered the U.S. legally, but lost their legal status for various reasons.

Brott wrote in his letter that three-quarters of the detainees in that time period had previous criminal convictions, ranging from burglary and driving under the influence to assault and criminal sexual conduct. Eleven were convicted of murder or manslaughter.

Raudabaugh and Mugaas said they're focusing on those 25 percent of detainees with no criminal record.

"They're literally lumped together with, in some cases, pretty hardened criminals," Mugaas said. "That just really seems like an unjust system."

The church members also have objected to the fact that detainees' family members aren't allowed to visit them face to face, but are allowed only video visitations.

Brott wrote that the same policy applies to all jail inmates in Sherburne County, not just ICE detainees. The video system, he said, which can be accessed online, allows family and friends to visit inmates from anywhere without having to travel to Elk River.

Concerns over expanding the program

One of the biggest concerns among the church congregations is a worry that Sherburne County might expand its jail to accommodate even more immigration detainees.

In 2017, the county responded to a request for information from ICE on proposals to expand immigration detention facilities in Minnesota.

Sherburne County said it could expand its jail to add 200 more beds for ICE detainees. Other proposals included reopening the closed private prison in Appleton and new private facilities in Pine Island and another undisclosed location.

Hundreds of candy canes sit on a counter.
Hundreds of candy canes sit on a counter inside the Sherburne County Jail.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But in his letter, Brott said he's had no communication with ICE about an expansion since October 2017.

"At this time there are no plans to expand the jail's physical structure for ICE," he wrote.

The agency would say nothing more. A spokesperson for ICE's regional office said it would be "inappropriate to speculate" on any potential requests for proposals.

'Difficult conversations'

The church leaders know their views are probably in the minority in conservative Sherburne County, where 64 percent of voters supported President Trump in the 2016 election.

County Commissioner Schmiesing said he thinks most people in the community support the federal jail contracts, which predate his 15-year tenure on the county board.

"Generally, we have utilized that money in a way that's helped citizens of Sherburne County," he said. "It's provided jobs in the county for people that work in this jail — very difficult jobs, but, nonetheless, jobs."

The jail employs 200 full-time staff, with 144 of those paid out of the special revenue fund, according to the sheriff's letter to the editor.

And even within his congregation, Mugaas said, not everyone is on the same page about immigration. The jail issue has provided church members an opportunity to have some "really tough conversations" and express their true feelings in a civil way, he said.

"If we as communities of faith can't have these difficult conversations, then that's really concerning to me as a faith leader," Mugaas said. "Because those are conversations that need to be happening on a communitywide and national level, too."