For more than a year, residents of Crete, Ill., have flooded meeting halls, erected yard signs and circulated petitions in order to halt the construction of a 750-bed detention center being considered by federal immigration authorities and the nation's largest for-profit prison corporation.
On Monday night, after learning more details about the financial benefits of the deal, Crete's board of trustees unanimously voted down a plan that would have brought a private prison for housing undocumented immigrants into their community. The rejection strikes a blow to Corrections Corporation of America, which last year took in more than $200 million in revenue from the business of detaining immigrants, according to securities filings.
Crete village board member Daniel Bachert said officials had been considering the detention center as a way to provide jobs for locals and boost revenues for the village coffers. But after meetings on Monday with CCA representatives, Bachert said the financial estimates provided were not enough to support the project.
"We were projecting something like one to two million dollars in income every year, minimum," Bachert said. "Unfortunately, that's not the way it came out."
Bachert said the estimates were more in the range of $250,000 every year -- a sum that "just doesn't cut it" for Crete.
Detaining undocumented immigrants has become big business for private prison corporations such as CCA and the GEO Group, two publicly traded companies that posted revenues of more than $1.5 billion each last year. As the federal government has taken a harder line on illegal immigration, the nation's two largest private prison companies have more than doubled revenues from immigrant detention since 2005.
Though private prison corporations manage some federal detention centers, the government tends to contract directly with small towns and counties -- who then subcontract to private operators such as CCA. That makes local buy-in from small towns and villages such as Crete a crucial part of the process.
"A lot of residents were really upset that this was being jammed down their throats," said Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which opposed the detention center.
CCA approached local leaders in Crete in 2010, after federal authorities with Immigration and Customs Enforcement notified local governments in the Chicago area of plans to build a new detention center for undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation or court hearings. CCA and Crete sent a joint proposal to ICE in November 2010, and the agency "tentatively selected" Crete as the proposed site for the detention center last year.
Residents in Crete have complained that these leaders kept them in the dark about proposals to build the jail on the edge of town. Bachert, the board member, said officials were simply collecting as much information as possible to ensure the village of 8,000 wasn't missing out on a major economic development opportunity.
A spokesman for CCA said that's exactly what Crete has chosen to do.
CCA's Steve Owen wrote in an e-mail that the village board's decision to block the detention center "is of course disappointing to the taxpayers, job seekers and local businesses that stood to benefit from this economic boost."
Owen said he could not cite specific terms of the proposed agreement, but he argued that the total financial benefits for Crete would "far exceed" the $250,000 figure cited by Bachert. He said that estimate "does not take into account the total package of financial benefits such as revenues from property taxes, which alone were projected to exceed $1.2 million annually." He said CCA "will continue to work closely with ICE in meeting their needs in the region."
An ICE spokesman, Shawn Neudauer, said the agency will be reviewing proposals from other local governments in the Chicago area.
Opponents of the detention center in Crete got support in the state capital earlier this year, with the Illinois General Assembly considering a bill that would have banned all privately operated detention centers in the state. After the bill was introduced, CCA hired one of Illinois' most powerful lobbying firms to make its case to lawmakers and the governor's office, according to state records.
The Illinois House voted down the measure two weeks ago.
Opponents of the detention center, including many Crete residents and immigrants' rights groups, said they were relieved that public opinion ultimately won out in Crete. But they were well aware that there will likely be a replay in other nearby communities.
"It might be over in Crete, but it sounds to me like it's going somewhere else," said Concetta Smart, the co-chair of Concerned Citizens of Crete, a group that organized against the detention center. "My job is not over yet."
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