Jerome County Jail

Sergeant Troy Tolman does a security walk through the cell block June 23 at the Jerome County Jail in Jerome. Jerome County is working to finalize a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to lease them 50 beds to house people arrested for immigration violations.

PAT SUTPHIN photos, TIMES-NEWS

It’s easy to see why Jerome County commissioners are considering a deal with federal immigration agents to house suspected illegal immigrants at its new jail. At 50 beds for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at $75 a day, Jerome County stands to make about $1.34 million a year.

That’s a lot of cash for the rural county, which is trying to compete and grow in a surging regional economy. But this issue has a whole lot more to do with it than simply dollars and cents.

Jerome County also has the second-highest Hispanic population in Idaho. And as the hub of the state’s $3 billion dairy industry, it relies heavily on immigrant labor. Today’s businesses like Chobani, Glanbia and Jerome Cheese Co. were all built on the backs of these laborers and their families who continue to work here, live here and send their students to local schools.

Partnering with ICE would be a slap in the face to Hispanics and dairy workers, and opponents fear it would drive immigrants out of the Magic Valley and further harm a dairy industry already struggling to retain workers. Any money from ICE would be erased by lost economic productivity, opponents argue.

It’s important to note, also, that ICE is talking about more than just a few prisoners. The federal agency is desperately trying to find a new detention center in the West after it lost access to 300 beds at the Utah County Jail in Spanish Fork, Utah. ICE likes Jerome for its location, but also because there’s room for expansion and to house even more immigration detainees in the future. ICE has even considered building a separate courthouse in Jerome to hold immigration hearings.

For Hispanics, legal or otherwise living in Jerome, a heavy ICE presence would be chilling. The American Civil Liberties Union is watching the negotiation closely and is in close contact with Hispanics who’ve flooded county commissioner meetings and staged rallies in opposition to the deal. Opponents have signaled a legal challenge is likely if Jerome County partners with ICE.

The latest to weigh in is Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, who late last month sent a letter to the county sheriff’s department.

“It is your responsibility to protect public safety and defend the constitutional rights of all people. Nothing in that charge conflicts with contracting with ICE to help enforce our immigration laws, and no outside considerations should keep you from doing so,” Otter wrote.

It appears here the governor is encouraging commissioners to take the ICE deal — or at least ignore the ACLU.

But what the governor is not considering — and what we hope commissioners will — is that outside influences (namely, the ACLU) aren’t driving the opposition. It’s locals.

ACLU operatives weren’t the ones leading protests over the summer. It was our neighbors, friends, coworkers, employees, students, clergy and business leaders — Jerome County residents.

Yes, there’s an economic argument to be made that it makes sense to partner with ICE. Yes, commissioners are probably within the law to do so. And, yes, we’re talking about illegal immigrants here, people who broke the law to get here and under the law should be sent home.

But it’s also a hard fact that immigrants and their families make up a large part of Jerome County, and commissioners have an obligation to represent their interests as Jerome County residents. ICE is offering a lot of money, but the agency isn’t a Jerome County resident, and it’s not the county’s duty to assist in federal immigration enforcement.

The county’s duty is to do what’s best for Jerome County residents. Commissioners must not forget this as they weigh their decision.

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