JEROME — A proposal to lease beds at the Jerome County jail to hold immigration suspects has generated plenty of controversy, but county commissioners say nothing will happen until and unless Immigration and Customs Enforcement brings them a contract.
ICE has been evaluating the proposal since at least January, when staff in Salt Lake City prepared a report saying beds here would make up for loss of space in Utah. It touts Jerome as an “ideal location” that would save the agency money by cutting down on the costs of transporting people to Seattle and Salt Lake City regularly and be a place where ICE could, in the future, hold detention hearings and lease more beds than the 50 being proposed now.
It could bring up to $1.37 million a year into the county’s coffers — the jail, which opened last year and was built with an $11.2 million bond, was built bigger than the county needs with the intent of leasing out beds. But the proposal has led to opposition and fear among many, especially in Jerome’s Hispanic community. Opponents view it in the context of the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants and fear it would lead to Jerome residents being rounded up and disrupt of the area’s economy. Civil rights and dairy industry groups have been lobbying against it, and a public hearing two weeks ago drew hundreds of people, the vast majority opponents, to the county courthouse.
County commissioners have been deluged with written comment from supporters and opponents, but for now they’re waiting to see how ICE wants to proceed. Commissioner Cathy Roemer said ICE and the sheriff’s office are negotiating, and the county is waiting to see what final adjustments ICE wants to make.
“The commissioners just kind of said, we’re not going to discuss it anymore or worry about it basically, or be concerned about it until they actually bring us a contract,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Charlie Howell. “And that’s up to them. We’re not going out and soliciting a contract from them.”
“I honestly don’t know” where things stand, said Commissioner Roger Morley. “It’s something ICE is dealing with internally and Jerome County is kind of just waiting for their response as to what they want to do.”
While written comments to commissioners are heavily against the proposal, proportionally the emails and letters have been more supportive than the in-person comment two weeks ago, where only two people spoke in favor of the idea and the overwhelming majority of the crowd was clearly opposed. Out of the 71 people who had written letters or emailed county commissioners with their views as of July 21, 53 opposed the contract and 18 supported it, according to a Times-News review of the comments obtained under the state’s public records laws.
Opponents include Peter Christensen, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise (the entire state is part of the diocese), as well as major local businesses yogurt-producer Chobani and cheesemaker Glanbia.
“When we talk to our farmers, they tell us that their biggest issue is attracting and retaining sufficient people and a key source is existing and new immigrant labor,” wrote Daragh Maccabee, Glanbia’s senior vice president for procurement and dairy economics. “We have clear evidence that a heightened sense of nervousness has already put further pressure on this situation and it is also very apparent that any increase in ICE activity will simply add to this problem. It is our considered opinion that this could result in a reduction in milk supply and threaten the short and long term viability of a key Idaho industry, an industry on which Jerome is particularly dependent.”
At least seven of the people who wrote opposing the contract are current or former Jerome residents. (Not everyone who has sent an email indicated where they were from.) At least 19, or more than a third, of the emails opposing the contract have come from Blaine County residents, including Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Angenie McCleary.
“Many Blaine County residents have strong family ties and friends in Jerome County,” she wrote. “They travel to Jerome on Sundays to go to church. They view this area as one. The increased presence of ICE in Jerome County will cause unrest and fear in Blaine County. The consequences for all our counties could mean significant economic impact.”
Out of the 18 letters and emails supporting the contract, at least 10 come from current Jerome residents or people who identify themselves as natives. Common reasons cited include that it will bring in extra money to help pay for the jail, that the only people who would have anything to fear from an increased ICE presence are living here illegally and that America’s immigration laws should be enforced.
“I do not believe it will bring fear to the legal residents of Jerome,” wrote Marty Buss-Nebeker. “It may to the illegal residents as it should. I’m not against legal immigration. I’m against illegal immigration and those choosing to turn a blind eye.”
Debra McCreery wrote that ICE would focus on criminals, not on “dish washers, gardeners, house-keepers and farm laborers.”
“MS-13 and cartel members don’t work minimum wage dirty jobs,” she wrote. “People who presume those low-wage workers are illegal, because of their skin color, are covert racists and have a bad attitude toward people who work in hard, unglamorous jobs. They also fret that ICE will break up families. Well, if ‘baby daddy’ is a criminal, the kids are better off with him out of the picture.”
Who would be targeted by any increased local enforcement has been one of the points of contention in the debate. In an email exchange with an opponent, Commissioner Roger Morley wrote that he told ICE officials in a meeting that the sheriff’s office would not help with any immigration enforcement and that he wouldn’t want to see raids or any disruption to the dairy industry.
“ICE was not taken back by this,” Morley wrote. “What they told me is they want to remove the gang and drug element from the Hispanic population. I quote ICE here, ‘If they have never been arrested on anything major, they have nothing to worry about.’ They are after only the bad element in the Hispanic population.”
Opponents worry an increased ICE presence would lead to undocumented immigrants who aren’t dangerous criminals being deported. In a letter opposing the contract, Idaho Dairymen’s Association head Bob Naerebout pointed to steep increases this year in the number of people being arrested for immigration violations who don’t have a criminal record. The increased fear of deportation, he said, could lead to people not showing up for work or leaving the area, saying that is what happened in states such as Arizona and Alabama when they passed strict immigration laws.
“I have been contacted by dairy producers who expressed ... (that) their workers are talking about finding work in areas where they feel it is safe to be in the community,” Naerebout wrote. “The reason is they see a contract with ICE for jail space is the first step in increase(d) enforcement by ICE in the Magic Valley.”
Vaughn Killeen, executive director of the Idaho Sheriffs Association, had a suggestion for how Sheriff Doug McFall could sidestep the controversy surrounding the contract.
“You may want to take a look at (Idaho code) 20-615 which requires you to take federal prisoners,” he wrote. “Immigration holds are federal prisoners and you really don’t need a contract … just house them and bill ICE $75 a day. Without a contract the controversy goes away, or at least the significant issue causing the demonstrations.”
Howell also wonders why a contract would be necessary. He said he reached out to ICE for more information but hasn’t heard back.
“We don’t have contracts with the other counties and we house their prisoners,” he said. “What’s the difference?”
Howell said he hasn’t decided how he would vote if ICE does present a contract. He said it would come down to what the contract says. Roemer, too, said it’s going to come down to the details for her.
“I know this is a politically charged situation, but it’s also for me going to be about the numbers,” she said. “So there has to be something for us numbers-wise to even make it attractive, as far as I’m concerned.”
Morley doesn’t know how he will vote either.
“There (are) so many dynamics,” he said.
Morley said “anyone who hires an undocumented worker in the future is really taking their economic future into their own hands,” and that soon “everybody is going to have to be documented in some way or another.” He said he would like to see a way to get legal status for people who are living here.
“We’ve turned a blind eye to this for generations, and now the world is so small that we can’t turn a blind eye to it anymore,” he said. “We’ve got to address the situation.”