Wyoming’s Catholic bishop attacks plan for new Evanston jail to hold Utah immigration detainees

(Photo courtesy of Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo.) Bishop Steven Biegler.

Wyoming’s Catholic bishop says a proposed detention center in Evanston, Wyo., to hold people awaiting immigration court appearances 83 miles away in West Valley City, Utah, would expand a system that is “inhumane and destructive to families.”

The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City also opposes the private jail, a spokeswoman told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, adding that the plan would turn human beings into commodities as part of a business plan. The diocese is formulating plans for future public statements about the issue.

Bishop Steven Biegler of the Diocese of Cheyenne, which encompasses the entire Cowboy State, posted an online letter attacking the jail, and had it read to Wyoming’s Uinta County Commission before it voted to endorse the proposed facility because it would bring extra jobs to Evanston.

Biegler also sent a letter that was read Sunday to protesters at a candlelight vigil in Evanston that called the arrest and imprisonment of refugees an immoral act, according to the Uinta County Herald.

“Current immigrant detention policies are costly, inhumane and destructive to families,” Biegler wrote in his online post.

He said the proposed private-company jail in Evanston would be an example of how many immigration centers are far from detainees’ families and communities — making it difficult for them to obtain legal assistance and other support. It’s one reason 81% of detainees lack legal representation, he added.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A badge for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents on March 12, 2008.

“Certainly, appropriate legal representation is not readily available in Evanston,” the bishop wrote. “That location also separates those detained there from families and any meaningful support system.”

Biegler said Jesus Christ invited people to imitate his love, which suggests a call to promote the reunification of families and to honor the inherent dignity of all migrants.

“Regrettably, the U.S. immigrant detention system represents a far cry from loving solidarity,” he wrote. “It divides us from our migrant brothers and sisters and separates families.”

In Utah, the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City had not spoken out publicly about the issue before inquiries from The Tribune on Thursday. But spokeswoman Jean Hill said it has been working with church leaders in Wyoming about future plans to do do.

“We have sort of dual opposition to it,” Hill said.

“The government’s policies are leading to too much detention of people,” she said. “Also anytime we privatize the incarceration or detention of people, just as a matter of morals, we’re opposed to the idea of making human beings into commodities in that way.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints declined to comment on the issue Thursday.

Meanwhile, Biegler also complained that Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently decided to double the size of the proposed facility, from 500 to 1,000 beds.

“Some believe that this change may be due to several state and local governments cutting ties with ICE detention facilities or state legislatures passing bills to deter immigrant detention in Virginia, Texas, Michigan, Illinois and California,” he wrote.

Utah immigration attorneys say that when the Utah County jail in recent years ended its contract to hold ICE detainees, the agency started moving them out of state — and many have been sent to Nevada and Colorado.

In 2017, ICE solicited general proposals for a new detention facility for the immigration court in West Valley City. Different private prison companies proposed them in faraway places: 83 miles away in Evanston; 481 miles away in Pahrump, Nev.; and 522 miles away in Aurora, Colo.

This summer, ICE made a firm request for proposals for a facility within 90 miles of the court, seemingly increasing the likelihood it will be built in Evanston, just over the Wyoming state line.

The Centerville-based Management and Training Corp. had in recent years proposed a detention center in Evanston because of support from local leaders there. It had not enjoyed such support in Utah, where it has faced protests over the detention facilities it operates nationally.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) In this July 12, 2018, file photo, activists stage a protest against a private prison company with contracts to hold undocumented immigrants. The demonstration was held at the headquarters of Management and Training Corporation in Centerville.

MTC recently withdrew its proposals for an Evanston facility. That opened the door for CoreCivic, formerly called Corrections Corporation of America, which is now pursuing the contract with hopes of building in Evanston.

The deadline for private prison companies to submit proposals was Saturday.

In Utah, the Utah Coalition to Keep Families Together says it has been urging people to write ICE to protest plans.

Biegler is doing the same. “I encourage all people of goodwill," he said, “to express their opposition to the proposed immigration jail by signing petitions or by writing letters.”