Immigration attorneys are welcoming the shuttering of a Gainesville immigration detention center, owned by the city and operated by the Corrections Corp. of America.
“For us, any time they close a detention center, that’s good news,” Atlanta immigration attorney Charles Kuck said. “We shouldn’t profit from detaining people.”
Gainesville immigration attorney David Kennedy agreed enthusiastically.
“I’m thrilled that unholy place is closing,” he said. “CCA is an evil corporation that represents the worst aspects of corporate greed as a justification for misanthropy.”
Arturo Corso, an immigration attorney in Gainesville, said he had more mixed feelings to the Monday announcement by CCA, which cited a continuous decline in population at the facility.
“My initial reaction to the facility closing: I was glad because it’s really kind of an eyesore as a resident of Gainesville,” Corso said. “I don’t want a prison in the middle of our downtown area.”
However, he said, it won’t improve the lives of immigrants detained, or the larger effort to achieve legal status for immigrants.
“I think closing that awful prison is a great thing for the city of Gainesville, but it doesn’t really change the lives of people seeking to change their immigration status,” Corso said.
Kuck said he wasn’t surprised that the Gainesville facility, which seemed to be intended for short-term stays, didn’t thrive like the Stewart facility in South Georgia, also owned by CCA. Clients detained in Gainesville originated anywhere from neighboring counties to neighboring states, he said, and most ultimately ended up at Stewart.
“From our perspective, it seemed to be a transitory place. I’ve had people in Stewart eight, 12, 15 months — it was much more long term,” Kuck said.
“ICE wasn’t filling it up; obviously it was more expensive to run,” Kuck added.
Vincent Picard, Eastern Seaboard spokesman for ICE, said ICE employees at the detention center will move to other offices.
“Corrections Corp. of America has decided to withdraw from the intergovernmental service agreement to house ICE detainees at the North Georgia Detention Center in Gainesville,” Picard said in a statement. “In accordance with that decision, ICE will relocate remaining detainees currently housed at the facility to other detention centers within Georgia prior to the end of 2013.”
Lawyer and family visits will be a bit tougher, Corso said.
“The only upside was that if you were from Gainesville, your family could visit you, or your lawyer could go and see you, and now we’re going to have to drive about three hours to the Stewart detention center,” Corso said. “That’s the only thing we’ve lost — the convenience.”
For the city, the closure may mean the loss of millions of dollars. The CCA paid the city rent for the space, bought from the county as part of a plan to control future midtown development.
Gainesville financed the purchase of the North Georgia Detention Center from Hall County for $7.2 million in October 2012. The city projected to get $825,000 in rent from the company for the 2014 fiscal year. The bond has a 2.5 percent interest rate.
City Manager Kip Padgett didn’t respond to questions about the lease. The Times has requested the contract through the Open Records Act.
Another group impacted by the closure is about 125 employees of the center. CCA spokesman Steven Owen said the company will help them find other positions.
“We will be offering all of them the opportunity to transfer to other CCA facilities,” he said. “For employees unable to transfer, our team will coordinate opportunities to help them find jobs in the local area.”
Kuck said the benefits of the closing pale in comparison to any drawbacks in the end.
“Any time a jail is closed down, it should be good news for everybody — it means you don’t need it,” Kuck said.
He also dismissed the notion that fewer detainees were the result of ICE easing immigration enforcement.
“Trust me, ICE is doing their job,” he said, with a laugh. “I’ve been witness to that.”
ICE still makes citations, but is detaining fewer people, he said, exercising more discretion to release people on bond.
“About six months ago, ICE started using a new computer program that helps them determine what a bond should be for somebody. They put in all the response data, and the program spits out, ‘This is what the bond shall be,’” he said. “It went from being subjective to a computer program, and my understanding is that if the program set less than $10,000, they would simply release them.”
Corso agreed, and said law enforcement measures have not changed — simply detainment policy.
“People shouldn’t get the idea that the sheriff has gone soft on crime, or gone soft on undocumented immigrants,” Corso said.
In Hall County, detainees can be referred to ICE based on a criminal accusation in a program called 287(g). Currently, ICE has 287(g) agreements with 36 law enforcement agencies in 19 states.
“If you were pulled over and you got arrested, that was it. They wouldn’t agree to a bond in any circumstances,” Corso said. “They had this hard and fast rule until they were completely overwhelmed with detainees.”
He said backlogs piled up, with some detainees being held for a year or longer.
“What they’ve started to do is for really low-risk people, they’re granting bonds,” he said. “It’s just a cost savings measure from ICE — the taxpayers don’t want to pay to clothe and feed you day after day.”
Kuck estimated it costs ICE about $75 dollars a day to detain a person.
There are harsh consequences for missing an immigration court hearing, Corso said.
“If you don’t come to court on the day of your notice to appear, the judge issues a removal order, and they do that in absentia,” he said. “The next time you come to immigration court, or the next time you get pulled over driving without a license at a roadblock, they’re going to know.”
The government proceeds with what Corso said is essentially “an expedited deportation hearing.”
“You can’t talk to your lawyer, no questions asked — you’re gone,” Corso said.
Corso said the immigration detention and deportation model in general has been a “cruel, one-size-fits-all dragnet,” in particular for more technical violations.
“I know the post on some blog will say ‘What part of criminal don’t you understand?’ but really a lot of people come here on a student visa, and then return on a student visa not knowing they needed a different type of visa,” he said.
Like both Kuck and Kennedy, Corso denounced the larger moral implications of the facility, and what it represented.
“In the bigger picture, we should never have privatized immigration detention facilities — the government should not be in the habit of making a profit from the incarceration of human beings,” he said.