2018-07-11 / Front Page

Willacy detention center plans draw angry protest crowd

BY ALLEN ESSEX
Reporter


DEMONSTRATORS bused in from Hidalgo County protest the planned reopening of an illegal alien detention center at Raymondville on the site of the former “tent city.”( 
Photo by Allen Essex) DEMONSTRATORS bused in from Hidalgo County protest the planned reopening of an illegal alien detention center at Raymondville on the site of the former “tent city.”( Photo by Allen Essex) Busloads of protesters chanted slogans on Friday outside the Willacy County courthouse, decrying the expected reopening of the former “tent city” detention center and the separation of children from families.

Waving signs referring to Raymondville as “RITMO” and denouncing the Trump Administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration, members of groups with titles such as RGV Equal Voice Network, recited their mantra outside as video and still photographers recorded the scene to add to similar demonstrations across the nation.

Meanwhile, County/Dis- trict Attorney Annette Hinojosa, County Judge Aurelio “Keter” Guerra and county commissioners discussed details of a “stipulation” answered reporters’ and opposition group leaders’ questions about the actions of the county commissioners and a legal panel called the “LGC,” or Local Government Corp.


A SIGN PROCLAIMING “EXECUTIVE SESSION” is seen on the locked door of the Willacy County Commissioners Courtroom as officials discuss legal details of an agreement to reopen the former “tent city,” now owned by Management and Training Corp. of Utah, located near the county jail, Texas State Jail and U.S. Marshals Detention Center near I69E, on the east edge of Raymondville. 
(Photo by Allen Essex) A SIGN PROCLAIMING “EXECUTIVE SESSION” is seen on the locked door of the Willacy County Commissioners Courtroom as officials discuss legal details of an agreement to reopen the former “tent city,” now owned by Management and Training Corp. of Utah, located near the county jail, Texas State Jail and U.S. Marshals Detention Center near I69E, on the east edge of Raymondville. (Photo by Allen Essex) Deaconess Cindy Andrade Johnson of the United Methodist Church was one of the protest leaders who spoke during the county commissioners meeting. She said, “it is a horrid idea, because of their record” referring to past allegations of abuse of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in MTC’s care at Raymondville and, later, Bureau of Prisons inmates at the same facility, resulting in a riot and shutdown of the facility by federal officials.


DEACONESS CINDY ANDRADE JOHNSON appeals to Willacy County commissioners on Friday to reconsider their plan to allow a detention center for illegal aliens to re-open. 
(Photo by Allen Essex) DEACONESS CINDY ANDRADE JOHNSON appeals to Willacy County commissioners on Friday to reconsider their plan to allow a detention center for illegal aliens to re-open. (Photo by Allen Essex) The document, approved Friday, amends an earlier agreement with MTC, which now owns the former “tent city” facility.

The Local Government Corp. board, which includes the county judge and Commissioners Court, wants to ensure that all parts of the agreement signed with MTC in 2017, when the LGV sold the facility to the Utah-based company, are followed, Guerra said.

The facility will now be on the tax rolls and MTC will have to pay property taxes to the county, Raymondville school district, and other entities such as irrigation and drainage district. Employment lost to the area will, at least, be partially restored when the facility reopens.

“The objective is to try and abide by the LGC agreement that we have in place with MTC,” the county judge said.

The Raymondville Chronicle tried repeatedly since the meeting to obtain copies of the contract with MTC, which allegedly has been approved, but not signed, as well as the “stipulation” or amendment to that contract signed on Friday, but documents still had not been obtained by press time.

After commissioners approved the legal paper, which brings the re-opening of the former “tent city” facility one step closer, Guerra explained to reporters and leaders of the protest groups that there has been no local protest of the reopening of the detention center. In fact, it has been the opposite, Guerra said. Local people want the facility to be up and running again, he said.

“The battle was fought, back in 2004, when the idea of bringing a prison to Willacy County was introduced,” the county judge said. “Since then, we’ve had the prison that’s open now (U.S. Marshals facility) and the detention center that generated up to 400 and above jobs at one time that was obviously a boost to the local economy.”

Local residents and business owners want the detention center to re-open, Guerra said.

“There are various reports that were introduced to local merchants being introduced and they’re anxiously awaiting those jobs, or at least some of those jobs, to come back to boost the local economy,” the county judge said.

“We have had continuous input from the local community, the local papers have written several stories pertaining to local constituents wanting this facility to reopen and mostly because of jobs,” Guerra said. “So, the notion that the community is not aware of it is just not there. I have not had a single constituent come to me and tell me that, since February 2015, when the riot happened, to not consider reopening it. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite.”

But that does not mean that he and other local officials would approve of harsh treatment for illegal aliens, especially the separation of small children from their mothers, Guerra said. Separating family members is not something that Willacy County officials would give a stamp of approval.

But local people desperately need the jobs as guards, cooks, maintenance workers or clerical employees at the detention center, the judge said.

The questions he gets from county residents are: “When are you going to open? When can we get jobs?”

Although there were many protesters outside the courthouse demanding the detention center not re-open, they were not local residents.

“So, if you have individuals who are out there, who are from the community, who are against it, bring them to me,” Guerra said.

A long row of buses parked near the courthouse showed that the demonstrators, mostly young people, were brought in from other parts of the Rio Grande Valley, or outside the Valley.

The facility, opened in 2003, was first used as a detention center for illegal aliens. It has a conventional brick-and-mortar building that holds about 1,000 inmates. It remains and has been restored. The tents, or dome structures, housed varying numbers of illegal aliens.

Later, when the government did not send enough illegal aliens to operate the facility at a profit and to pay the county’s bond debt for its construction, it was converted to holding Bureau of Prisons inmates in the last year of their sentences.

But in February 2003, prisoners rioted, citing bad living conditions, bad food and inadequate medical care. The federal government shut it down and sent prisoners elsewhere. Willacy county plunged into economic despair, laying off county workers and the community suffered a loss of about 400 jobs at the center. Hotel, restaurants and stores faced hard times. County government laid off workers and cut benefits. The city of Raymondville, which had gone into debt to build water and sewer utilities for the tent city, the U.S. Marshal’s detention center, as well as a new county jail and the Texas State Jail, suffered a loss of water and sewer revenue after the tent city closed.

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