ICE moves to close South Georgia detention center, then re-evaluates

The Trump administration moved this week to close a federal immigration detention center in South Georgia just months after it opened, and then said it was re-evaluating that decision, leaving 170 jobs, $4 million in private investments, and a big chunk of local tax revenue up in the air.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s change of direction Friday came after Republican U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, who represents the area, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution he had secured an assurance about the center’s fate from ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan.

Citing “low usage,” ICE had notified Charlton County by email Monday that it was canceling a five-year contract with the county for managing the Folkston ICE Processing Center. Florida-based GEO Group, a private corrections firm, is operating the center next to the D. Ray James federal prison, near the Florida border.

“As soon as I heard of this situation I immediately contacted Acting Director Homan,” Carter said in a prepared statement Thursday. “We had a productive conversation and he has assured me the contract is not being terminated. Many jobs in the area depend on this facility and I will continue to work to protect them if the situation arises in the future.”

Asked about Homan’s decision, ICE spokesman Bryan Cox confirmed Friday that his agency is taking another look at the situation because it “continually strives to improve cost-effectiveness and operational efficiencies at all of its detention facilities, including Folkston.”

“The agency,” he said, “is currently reviewing costs and operational needs throughout the country and will be working closely with local officials and the Folkston facility operator in the coming months to explore detention options in the area.”

Signed in December by Charlton and ICE officials, the no-bid contract put the cost at $1.9 million a month, regardless of whether all of the beds in the center are filled. In all, the contract is expected to cost taxpayers $116.7 million during its first five years.

A spokeswoman for ICE said her agency has similar flat-fee arrangements with other private detention centers because they provide “a monthly (price) guarantee to the vendor, which generally lowers the cost for ICE.” Such no-bid contracts are allowed under federal law, according to ICE.

RELATED: Immigration detention center in South Georgia to cost $116.7 million

Oddly, ICE’s initial move to cancel the contract this week came after the agency announced earlier this year that it was seeking more detention space amid President Donald Trump’s broad crackdown on illegal immigration. In February, ICE said it was opening the center in Folkston partly because other detention centers in the region were already full. The agency said it chose the Folkston site because it is accredited by the American Correctional Association and it is not far from the Jacksonville International Airport.

By some estimates last year, the project was expected to create an estimated economic impact of $42 million for the region, $21 million in revenue for GEO and $265,000 in annual property tax revenue and management fees for Charlton.

Charlton officials are now scrambling to persuade ICE to keep the center open. In a letter to ICE Thursday, the county pushed back against ICE’s “low usage” claim, saying the center – which has space for 780 beds — was holding 588 detainees this week. The average daily population this year has been 592, and the center has reached a high of 629, according to the county.

Further, GEO invested $4 million in physical plant improvements suggested by ICE and has hired and trained workers to operate the center, which has a payroll of $11.2 million, the county said.

Charlton Commission Chairman James Everett wrote ICE Wednesday, asking the agency to rescind its decision and to meet with him and other county officials early next month. Canceling the county’s contract to operate the center with GEO, Everett wrote, “would be devastating to the employees, their families and our community, especially during the upcoming holiday season.”

ICE, however, sent the county another email Thursday, saying the contract was scheduled to be canceled on Feb. 4.

Nearly a third of Charlton’s population — now at about 12,500 — is living in poverty, and the county’s median household income is $42,778. Last year, Charlton Administrator Shawn Boatright said GEO was his county’s largest private employer. On Thursday, Boatright said he was shocked by ICE’s initial decision to cancel the contract.

“We think it is a really good facility and it has the opportunity to meet the capacity,” he said. “It’s been a really big boost to our county as far as employment. To see a potential loss would be very, very hurtful for our economy.”

Critics want ICE to sever ties with the private companies like GEO, arguing they are profiting off the detention of immigrants. But replacing them with publicly owned and operated ones could take years and cost billions of dollars in taxpayer money, according to ICE. GEO had no comment this week.

Nashville-based CoreCivic owns and operates the 1,918-bed Stewart Detention Center south of Atlanta for ICE. And Miami-based CGL and Louisiana-based LaSalle Corrections run the 512-bed Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla.

Christina Mansfield, co-founder of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, which wants to end immigration detention in the U.S., said “locking up immigrants in taxpayer-funded, privately-run detention facilities only benefits companies like GEO Group at the expense of everyone else.”

“Rather than pouring money into the incarceration of immigrants,” she said, “local governments and taxpayers should be investing in education and community resources.”

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