Sherburne County is proposing to expand its jail to provide space for up to 500 immigration detainees, an increase from the 300 beds it currently provides for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The county sent the preliminary proposal in response to ICE's request for additional detention space within 100 miles of its St. Paul field office at Fort Snelling, county officials confirmed.
ICE's deadline for proposals was May 20. It's not clear when the federal agency will decide whether to pursue them.
Sherburne County has the second-largest county jail in Minnesota, capable of housing 732 inmates. For decades, the county has contracted with the U.S. government to house immigration detainees and other federal inmates. Its jail once held the 20th conspirator behind the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Zacarias Moussaoui.
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The county has already expanded the jail twice, once in 1998 and again in 2005, to create more space for federal inmates. In addition to ICE, Sherburne County also has a contract with the U.S. Marshals Service.
ICE maintains contracts with counties across the nation to house people suspected of violating immigration laws. In 2017, Sherburne County signed a contract with the agency that guarantees up to 300 beds a day will be available for ICE detainees in its jail for five years. The agency pays the county $100 a day per inmate housed.
Four other Minnesota counties — Freeborn, Nobles, Kandiyohi and Carver — have similar contracts for housing detainees, according to ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer.
Sherburne County Sheriff Joel Brott said last year that just over half of the 1,500 ICE detainees housed in his jail from January through October 2018 were from Mexico, and the rest were from about 85 different countries. About three-fourths had previous criminal convictions.
Sherburne County receives about $11 million a year, before expenses, for housing immigration detainees, according to Brott. The revenue goes into a special fund that helps pay for the cost of running the jail and for county buildings, land and equipment.
In 2017, ICE requested information to identify multiple sites where people suspected of violating immigration laws could be detained. The request sought detention space within 180 miles of Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul and Salt Lake City.
At that time, Sherburne County responded to that request by saying it could expand its jail to add 200 more beds for ICE detainees.
In March, ICE issued an official request for proposals for space to house an estimated 500 detainees. At a Sherburne County board meeting May 7, Brott laid out several options for routes the county might take, from doing nothing and likely allowing its contract with ICE end in 2022, to proposing an expansion to house more detainees.
Brott said ICE would likely consider more favorably a proposal for the full 500 beds than a proposal for a smaller expansion. He said there are economies of scale that come along with a larger expansion, because the county would need to make upgrades to accommodate the additional detainees, such as building a new kitchen, laundry, booking and interview areas.
"There's a lot of the core services that would need to be improved and built out, so it's easier to pay for those improvements when you're receiving a per diem for 500 individuals versus 300," Brott said.
County board members supported the full expansion to 500 beds. In interviews, they stressed that the proposal is in its early stages. County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing said if ICE is interested, "it really just begins to open up the discussion about the expansion."
He said if Sherburne County didn't propose more space for detainees, ICE might find another facility elsewhere and end its contract with the county after it expires in 2022.
"We have a number of people that live in our area that work in that facility, and we want to make sure that we continue to have employment for them," Schmiesing said.
Losing the ICE contract would cost about 63 jobs in the sheriff's office, while expanding the jail would create at least 61 more jobs, Brott said.
After an expansion, the county would have 450 beds available for men who are being detained by ICE and 50 for women. Only adult detainees would be housed in the jail, Brott said, not youth or families.
As part of the expansion, the county would need to bring the facility up to current ICE standards, which includes adding more medical and mental health services. Brott said those services would be extended to the entire jail population.
"We're all aware of the mental health concerns and issues in county jails, and medical concerns," he said. "And we want to provide the best service possible we can to all inmates and detainees."
'We're not committed'
Any expansion of the jail or a new contract with ICE would require approval by the county board. Schmiesing said it would be an open process with opportunity for public input.
"We're starting out the discussion with the count that they're asking for, and who knows where we end up," Schmiesing said. "It could be less. We could change it, or we could pull out of this as well. We're not committed."
There's also no guarantee the federal agency would select Sherburne County from among other local governments or private companies that also submit proposals. One preliminary proposal from a private company, CoreCivic Inc., involved reopening the vacant prison in Appleton, Minn., to house detainees.
In some places, building new or additional detention space has been controversial among residents who don't want their communities to play a role in the Trump administration policy of arresting and detaining people suspected of being in the country illegally.
A private company based in Virginia, for example, recently withdrew its application to rezone property in New Richmond, Wis., for a new 500-bed immigration detention center, after city staff said it didn't fit with the city's long-range plans.
The southeastern Minnesota city of Pine Island also withdrew from consideration last year as a potential site for an ICE detention center. Residents there spoke out on both sides of the issue.
Historically, Sherburne County has seen little opposition to its federal jail contracts, which many local residents see as a source of revenue and jobs. According to the sheriff's office, the contracts have supported 141 jobs with salaries totaling $64 million over the past 10 years.
The Rev. Robin Raudabaugh, pastor of Union Congregational Church in Elk River, has helped lead regular vigils at the jail for the past year to protest the housing of immigration detainees.
In a letter in the local newspaper, Raudabaugh wrote that Sherburne County residents "should be dismayed and appalled at the eagerness of county elected leaders to deepen our relationship with a government agency that separates families, cages children and violates court orders to reunite families."
She called Sherburne County's proposal a "huge expansion" that people shouldn't just allow to happen.
"All of a sudden, you find yourself at a place where there's this huge monstrosity of something that is really not good," she said. "We're already at the point that saying no is harder, because they already have a big facility there."
Raudabaugh also questioned what will happen to the facility when there's a different U.S. president, possibly with a different policy on detaining immigrants.
But Schmiesing said Sherburne County has maintained federal contracts for decades, and said the need for detention space hasn't slowed down under different presidential administrations.
"We've been in this business for a while, and we have been through four, five different administrations," he said. "I don't think it seems like it changes that much."
Brott said he hasn't heard much opposition to the proposal. He said a number of people have told him they support the expansion, and understand that the county's role is to house people who are being detained on immigration grounds, and not to decide whether they get to stay in the country or are deported.
"We are just simply a housing facility until the federal government can make those decisions," Brott said. "I think the community at large understands and supports that."