Residents in a South Florida community near a proposed 1,500-bed privately-operated immigration detention center waged a successful yearlong opposition campaign that culminated in the cancellation of the project in June 2012.
Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) purchased a 24-acre plot in the town of Southwest Ranches 15 years ago, with the intention of eventually building a prison or detention facility on the property. The land was located just outside the city of Pembroke Pines near an existing state women’s prison, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) preliminarily selected the site for a detention center in 2010. ICE contracts with CCA to operate 13 facilities nationwide that hold immigration detainees.
Documents filed in Broward County by Southwest Ranches officials described ICE’s intention. “ICE requires approximately 1,500 to 2,000 new detention beds to meet local demand in the Miami Metropolitan area. Ideally, this demand would be met by one 1,000-1,500 bed facility, with the capacity to expand to 2,000 beds.”
The proposed CCA-run facility, the Southwest Ranches Detention Center, would be almost three times the size of the Krome Detention Center in Miami, making it the largest such facility in South Florida. CCA said the $75 million prison would create 300 “stable, well-paying local jobs and careers,” and would be “community friendly.”
Residents in Pembroke Pines, however, didn’t buy the company’s PR pitch. “We are concerned about an increase in crime, and increases in traffic,” said Ryann Greenberg, a member of Residents Against SW Ranches ICE Detention Center, who noted the facility would be located near residential areas and several schools.
Residents envisioned seeing armed guards watching busloads of prisoners and escapees prowling local neighbor-hoods. They also were concerned about the negative impact on property values, liability issues and the burden on the city’s public services as a result of the proposed detention center.
Greenberg and other citizens opposed to the CCA facility formed a Facebook page, staged public protests, put up “no prison” signs, distributed fliers, filed public records requests, circulated a petition and packed city hall to express their concerns.
At the behest of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, local officials were encouraged to say little about the immigration detention center project. “The less we say, the better off we will be,” Southwest Ranches attorney Keith Poliakoff said in an email to town leaders. Southwest Ranches stood to benefit financially from the CCA facility – the company indicated it would pay the town $1.5 million a year, including $350,000 in property taxes.
A contract signed with Southwest Ranches in 2005 gave CCA the right to build whatever it wanted on the property it owned. “Legally, this facility can be built today as of right,” said Poliakoff. “If the owner came in for a building permit to develop the site tomorrow, the town would legally have to issue the permit and construction could immediately commence.”
There were reportedly 27 public hearings on the matter before the contract was signed, though they apparently were not well publicized, as local residents were caught off guard when CCA and ICE began moving ahead with the detention center. Protestors attended an October 2011 hearing on Pembroke Pine’s contract with Southwest Ranches to provide water, sewer, fire and emergency medical services for the proposed CCA facility.
“We want them to rescind the contract so it doesn’t include water and fire/EMS services for the detention center,” Greenberg said. “If this detention center doesn’t have water and sewer, it can’t exist. In the agreement, [the contract language specifies], ‘the willingness to provide these services,’ and Pembroke Pines residents are not willing to provide this service, because we don’t want [the facility] near our homes, schools or even our community.”
U.S. Representative Debbie Wasserman entered the fray by issuing a letter in support of the proposed detention center, but criticized town officials for their silence on the issue. Broward County’s property appraiser, Lori Parrish, also issued a statement about the property owned by CCA in Southwest Ranches.
Parrish cited potential tax evasion by the company. CCA had purchased the land for $5 million while it was appraised at $3 million, resulting in a property tax bill of approximately $60,000. However, CCA was only paying $3,000 because it used a loophole in Florida law that allows agricultural tax exemptions when cows are on the property. CCA leased the land for $10 a year to the Green Glades Cattle Co., a business owned by property developer Ron Bergeron, who had sold the property to CCA. The company’s use of Bergeron’s “rent-a-cow” business let it exploit the tax loophole.
“They don’t make money on the lease. It’s not to have the property make money on [the agricultural exemption]. In my opinion, it’s tax avoidance,” said Parrish.
County appraiser photos from December 2010 showed no cows on the site, but CCA spokesman Steve Owen attributed that to rotation of the cows from property to property. The tax exemption applies even if cows are on the land for only one day per year.
Beyond the property tax issue, the fight against the CCA detention center heated up in early 2011 as residents petitioned city officials in Pembroke Pines to take action against the facility. “They’re selling our towns to lobbyists and special interests,” said Greenberg.
They were joined by other activists, including the Florida Immigrant Coalition (FLIC), which was at the forefront of the issue and organized meetings and protests, set up a website (www.ccagoaway.org) and advocated against the proposed immigration detention center. They also learned that ICE had not conducted an environmental impact study when selecting the Southwest Ranches site.
“Some residents wanted to push the message that criminals were coming into their community and that they would lose their safety, but the facts showed that the enemy was CCA and that the detainees were victims of a profit-driven system that puts their health, safety, their very lives at risk so CCA could make more money,” FLIC stated.
The city commissioners for Pembroke Pines listened, and on March 7, 2012 voted to withdraw from their agreement with Southwest Ranches to provide water, sewer, fire and emergency medical services to the proposed CCA facility, despite having received conflicting legal opinions as to whether they were obligated to honor the contract.
CCA filed a federal lawsuit against Pembroke Pines the very next day, arguing that the city was interfering with the company’s plans to build the detention center. See: CCA v. City of Pembroke Pines, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Fla.), Case No. 0:12-cv-60427-WJZ.
The city in turn sued CCA in state court, seeking a declaratory judgment as to whether it was within its rights to withdraw from the agreement with Southwest Ranches, which included a nine-month termination for convenience provision. Further, CCA was not a party to that contract, which expressly disclaimed third-party beneficiaries. See: City of Pembroke Pines v. CCA, Circuit Court of the 17th Judicial Circuit for Broward County (FL), Case No. 12-7337.
Officials in Southwest Ranches and Pembroke Pines also engaged in a series of conflict resolution discussions, though little progress was made, with the former accusing the latter of breach of contract. “If you provide water and sewer to CCA, then this issue will go away,” Southwest Ranches Mayor Jeff Nelson said to city commissioners for Pembroke Pines.
Ultimately, though, it was the federal government that decided the issue. On June 15, 2012, ICE announced it no longer needed a detention center in the area, effectively killing the proposed CCA prison. “ICE has reevaluated its need for an additional detention facility in South Florida and has decided that it will no longer pursue a facility in the Town of Southwest Ranches,” the agency said in a written statement.
“It’s a great day!” exclaimed Pembroke Pines resident Heidi Jones. “We’re just very, very grateful. It was a very long fight. It’s been a yearlong battle and there was always doubt [that we’d win.] I just knew there had to be some voice of reason somewhere and we just had to keep throwing everything at it we could.”
“Having ICE walk away from this detention center is definitely a step in the right direction,” added Kathy Bird, an organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “This shows that our government is listening to us, finally. That’s at least how I feel today.”
Despite CCA’s claims of being “community friendly,” it is still proceeding with its lawsuit against Pembroke Pines, which has spent at least $125,000 in legal fees in connection with the proposed immigration detention center.
According to Pembroke Pines commissioner Angelo Castillo, defending against the suit is part of the price the city has to pay for standing up against CCA. “The cost of doing the business of government can’t be an excuse for government not to do its job,” he said. “We are doing the job we’re supposed to do.”
Sources: Tampa Tribune, www.floridaindependent.com, www.local10.com, www.ccagoaway.org, www.noprisonswr.org, www.sun-sentinel.com, Miami Herald
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