JEROME — Opponents of a proposal for Jerome County to lease beds at its jail to Immigration and Customs Enforcement came out in force Monday.
Holding handmade signs bearing slogans such as “No ICE” and “Keep our families together,” they packed into the county commissioners’ meeting room and after the meeting rallied outside the building, chanting “Jerome unido jamas sera vencido,” or “United Jerome will never be defeated.”
The contract between ICE and Jerome County hasn’t been finalized, but the plans tentatively call for the county to lease 50 beds to ICE at $75 a day per bed.
“The board has not had any communication other than the contract is coming,” Commissioner Charlie Howell said.
Jerome County is about 35 percent Hispanic, the second-most Hispanic county in Idaho, and according to a report the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs released earlier this year it’s split almost evenly between people born in the U.S. and people born abroad, mostly in Mexico. Some of them are in the country illegally — the Pew Research Center estimated in 2014 that about 45,000 undocumented immigrants live in Idaho, almost 3 percent of the state’s population and 42 percent of its immigrant population.
Even if ICE’s leasing beds at the local jail isn’t linked to any specific changes in enforcement, opponents worry having more ICE agents in town will lead to more people being arrested.
“Just seeing an ICE officer going to a restaurant, stay at a motel or something like that, that’s going to scare the literal hell out of people,” said Benjamin Reed, on-air personality at the local Spanish-language radio station 99.1 La Perrona.
Reed said the proposal has been the hot topic on his call-in show since news of it came out. Whenever someone sees an ICE agent, he said, word spreads on social media and some people avoid going out to events like quinceañeras (a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday) or rodeos. Reed pointed to an incident in Baltimore where much of a restaurant’s staff quit after ICE agents demanded everyone’s documentation.
“What’s going to stop ICE from going into the dairies locally?” he asked.
Maria Andrade, a Boise-based immigration lawyer who came to Jerome for the protest, worried the move could erode trust between the Hispanic community and local law enforcement. She said she has seen an increase at her practice in the number of people being prosecuted for immigration violations who don’t have criminal records.
“I cannot believe that ICE can make a promise that they’re only going to arrest a certain segment of the population,” she said.
Commissioners voted to bring someone from ICE to Jerome at some point in the near future to talk about the proposal. They didn’t take any public comment Monday, although they will at 2 p.m. on Monday, July 10. If as many people turn out as did this Monday, testimony might be moved to the county courtroom instead of being held in the smaller commissioners’ meeting room, Howell said.
Brothers Jose Mendoza, 13, and Carlos, 12, were born in the United States but their families are from Colima, Mexico, and they’re worried. Holding a sign saying “No ICE! We want to keep our community safe!,” Carlos said he plans to come to next week’s meeting “so we can support our family, help the people here and hope they can stay here still.”
Yadira Juarez, who lives in Boise but whose family lives in Jerome, doesn’t think a PR campaign would set people at ease. An ICE presence in town, she said, would increase fear in the Hispanic community.
“I was kind of taken aback at their lack of perspective,” she said of the commissioners.
Juarez said the timing of the proposal seemed interesting, given the stricter immigration policies the Trump administration is pursuing.
“It almost feels like a direct attack on the Hispanic community here,” Juarez said.
ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice declined to answer questions about the reasons for the contract or whether it signals any changes in enforcement in the region, citing federal regulations barring the agency from “speculating about possible future detention contracts.”
“However, ensuring there are sufficient beds available to meet the current demand for detention space is crucial to the success of ICE’s overall mission,” she said in an email. “Accordingly, the agency is continually reviewing its detention requirements and exploring options that will afford ICE the operational flexibility needed to house the full range of detainees in the agency’s custody. In weighing future detention contracts, ICE’s foremost considerations are the welfare of those in our custody and ensuring that the agency is being a responsible steward of taxpayers’ money.”
Commissioner Roger Morley told the crowd ICE was looking for more beds in the region because they have fewer in Utah than they used to, not because they plan on additional enforcement.
“Their status is not going to be increased,” he said. “We’re a pass-through facility for them.”
Morley said he would listen to public input and wouldn’t want to do anything to harm the dairy industry, which employs many Hispanic people and is a major part of the regional economy.
“We’ll look at this very hard and we do not want to disrupt our economy whatsoever,” he said.