A proposed ICE detention center for Salt Lake City’s immigration court won’t be in Utah

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year sought proposals for where to build a new detention facility somewhere in the Salt Lake City area — or at least within a 180-mile ground trip from its field office and immigration court there.

None of the three proposals received are in Utah, and they’re not easy commutes: 83 miles away in Evanston, Wyo.; 481 miles away in Pahrump, Nev.; and 522 miles away in Aurora, Colo. Different private prison companies are proposing each of them.

That may make it difficult for the Utah families of criminal aliens or other immigration violators to visit them, or for their local attorneys to represent them. It comes as detainee numbers are growing amid immigration crackdowns by the Trump administration.

The three far-distant proposals for a new Salt Lake City facility were revealed in a response by ICE to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, and posted online.

That group, joined by 14 legal service providers, had earlier protested plans for the new Salt Lake detention facility and others contending that “adding any additional jails to the already massive immigration detention system would severely undermine due process and civil rights for thousands of detained immigrants.”

Chris Keen, an Orem immigration attorney, says that when Utah County recently ended its contract to hold ICE detainees in its jail, the agency started moving them out of state — and many have already been sent to Nevada and Colorado.

Before that happened, he said it was much easier “to see my clients. I could pass papers to them. They could sign. I could interview them. I could prepare them for hearings. Their families could come see them.”

But now, he is often forced to travel out of state — or clients must find a new out-of-state lawyer — as most, but not all, detainee cases originating in Utah are being transferred to out-of-state immigration courts.

“You can always request a telephonic hearing in immigration court, but that just is not as good as being there, especially in a tricky case,” Keen said.

“They can always get an out-of-state attorney. But if the family is all based here, they can’t see them in visits — and it’s also harder for the family to select an attorney who they know through reputation,” he said.

“A far-away detention center is not a good answer for the Utah immigration court,” Keen said, adding it is also pushing many detainees “simply to accept a deportation” rather than fight it far from their families and attorneys.

Luis Garza, executive director of Comunidades Unidas (Communities United), says while a new facility in the Salt Lake area might make life easier for some detainees, his group and many Latinos still oppose adding it because more jails help further policies and crackdowns they say help separate immigrant families.

“That is still a private detention facility gaining benefit by detaining and separating families,” Garza said, adding he is saddened that one of the three firms seeking to build a new facility for Salt Lake is Centerville-based Management and Training Corp. It is proposing a new 640-bed facility in Evanston, Wyo.

MTC spokesman Issa Arnita said, “We chose Evanston, Wyo., primarily for the tremendous local support for the project and its proximity to the ICE Salt Lake City Field Office.” An earlier story by WyoFile detailed how excited some Wyoming official are for a facility there — which would create jobs for locals but long bus rides to Salt Lake City for detainees appearing in immigration court.

MTC has not enjoyed such support in Utah, and has faced protests here over the detention facilities it operates nationally. Eight protestors were arrested last month after some had chained themselves to the company’s headquarters.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Activists Psarah Johnson talks about locking herself alongside other activists in the lobby of a private prison company with contracts to hold undocumented immigrants on Thursday, July 12, 2018, at the headquarters of Management and Training Corporation in Centerville. Johnson was released after being charged with disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest and believes she was let go while others were arrested because "the police is not ADA compliant."

Psarah Johnson, one of the group protesting, said then, “The reason we were all willing to do this is what we were seeing, so many families being taken away from their children; we’re seeing children being put into detention centers” although MTC said it holds no children in its facilities.

When ICE was asked if such distant facilities proposed to serve the Salt Lake area would adequately serve justice, ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok emailed a response saying simply, “To maintain the integrity of the contracting process, ICE does not discuss contracts that may be in negotiation.”

Besides MTC’s Evanston proposal, GEO Group is proposing to use an existing 432-bed facility in Aurora, Colo. And CoreCivic is proposing to expand the Nevada Southern Detention Center in Pahrump, Nev., to 640 beds.