When Jorge Lara’s father opened a bakery in the tiny South Texas town of Raymondville in 1963, the city boasted three theaters, dozens of restaurants and a bustling main street. The cotton fields that cover the county raked in profit. Jobs were plentiful.
More than 50 years later, Lara’s Bakery is one of the few businesses left downtown. Each morning, employees fill the glass cases with glazed doughnuts and Mexican pastries like pan dulce and pumpkin empanadas.
Although the bakery is busy, the storefronts all around it are boarded up with faded signs. The historic movie theater on the city’s main drag is vacant. Even the Walmart has gone out of business.
So when Lara heard the county would reopen an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in town, he welcomed the news of jobs that pay $18 an hour. “Anything that can come in will help out,” he says.
Willacy County, Texas, is not the only place hoping to reap the benefits of a new detention facility.
When President Trump campaigned on a pledge to crack down on illegal immigration, the nation’s big private prison companies saw opportunity.
And they weren’t wrong. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is currently seeking new contracts for 3,000 new bed spaces in immigration detention within 180 miles of Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. And just in June, ICE asked for information from companies that could potentially accommodate 15,000 new family immigration lockups.
And with the majority of immigrant detainees held in facilities operated by for-profit companies, it’s not hard to predict who will get those contracts.
The problem is that many of the private prison companies have troubling track records — ranging from poor living conditions to allegations of physical and sexual abuse of detainees.
But with the promise of good-paying jobs in places where they’re sorely needed, communities like Raymondville are increasingly having to grapple with a complicated choice.
Trouble in Willacy
Officially, the new center in Raymondville is called El Valle Detention Center. Unofficially, some people call it Ritmo — short for Raymondville Gitmo, a play on the nickname for the infamous detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Others still call it Willacy, the name the detention center had before inmates torched it in 2015.
For years before the riots, immigrants at Willacy had complained about overcrowding, rodents and physical and sexual abuse.
Mark Fleming, who observed Willacy in 2009 for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, visits a lot of immigration detention centers. He says Willacy was uniquely bad. It included a literal tent city, each Kevlar tent packed with rows of bunk beds.
“I think it was in a class of its own,” Fleming says. “When it was built, it was intended to be a temporary facility and soon temporary turned into an over five to 10 years slowly disintegrating situation.”
The Utah-based company that operated Willacy, Management and Training Corp., operates several other private immigration detention facilities for ICE. Willacy first opened as an immigration detention center in 2006. By 2015, Willacy was no longer operated by ICE; it had become a Bureau of Prisons facility. Inmates were immigrants with criminal records, including many whose crime was crossing the border multiple times. ICE severed ties with Willacy in 2011 after allegations of abuse.
When the facility shut down after the riots and tent fires, the county was in tens of millions of dollars of debt for the cost of the center. The county sued MTC for breach of contract, accusing the company of “abysmal management of the prison.”
In the suit, Willacy County alleged MTC “turned a blind eye to the enormous problems that plagued the prison from its inception,” including flooding toilets, rodents, failure to provide basic services and overcrowding so bad that some detainees were forced to stay in solitary confinement. Eventually, Willacy County dropped the lawsuit and sold the land Willacy sits on to MTC. As part of the agreement, MTC agreed to pay off the county’s debt from the prison.
The facility remained closed until July, when busloads of immigrant detainees starting arriving again. Days before the reopening, protesters marched in front of Willacy County Courthouse, where commissioners met to approve final amendments to a new three-year contract with MTC.
The deal was, for the most part, already done.
At that meeting, Judge Aurelio Guerra, the county official who oversaw the process for Willacy County, heralded the jobs that MTC would bring back.
“I have not had a single constituent come to me and tell me since February of 2015 not to consider reopening it,” he told reporters.
NPR requested an interview with Guerra and with each county commissioner. They all either declined or did not reply. NPR also filed a public records request for the new contract between the county and MTC. The request remains unanswered.
In an interview with NPR, Dan Joslin, MTC vice president of corrections, said the company had always hoped to reopen its immigration detention center there.
“That’s certainly been our goal all along,” Joslin said. “We’re committed to Willacy County … and we feel like we’re a part of that community, and we’re committed to helping the community out as best we can and our goal all along has been to bring a project back there.”
For many people who live in Willacy County, the most important thing about the facility is that it pays guards close to $20 an hour. Other jobs in town pay less than half that.
David Correa Gomez, the city of Raymondville’s economic development coordinator, says the region is impoverished and badly needs good-paying jobs.
“If we take a step back, it’s very important to take two steps forward to compensate,” he said.
Asked whether he had any hesitations about going back into business with a company that the county once said failed to provide safe and adequate care for inmates, Guerra says “absolutely not.”
He says MTC has not offered the city any explicit assurances that it has taken steps to address the failures documented at Willacy leading up to the riots.
“Not at the moment,” Guerra says. “But we have an extreme amount of confidence in MTC because they’re highly reputable in the U.S. in terms of the operations. They have the background and the credentials to back it up.”
“We were unfortunate to have the riot in 2015,” he says, “but things happen.”
Opponents of the facility say this is a false choice between jobs and immigration detention.
“To put money on the table and to say, ‘If you lock up your brothers and sisters, we will improve the quality of your street’ is a completely false setup,” says Christina Patiño Houle, an organizer with a local advocacy group, Equal Voice Network. “To position the well-being of the few, against the well-being of the collective, I think is an absolutely false dichotomy.”
For its part, MTC says the new facility will house fewer people — 1,000 men instead of nearly 3,000. About 250 people will work at the new facility, the company says, about 150 fewer employees than the old Willacy facility.
Joslin says that the main lessons his company learned from Willacy are that Kevlar tents are ineffective and that Bureau of Prison inmates are a higher-risk population than Immigration and Customs Enforcement inmates.
He also said most of the claims made about conditions in Willacy were unfounded — especially those in the county’s lawsuit against the company.
In a statement, MTC also said the company does not tolerate inappropriate behavior by its staff — and employees are disciplined or face criminal charges for any wrongdoing.
Joslin calls the accusations raised by the county “posturing just based on what happened in this instance” and says “we clearly have moved past that.”
Allegations of abuse and neglect of detainees at privately run detention facilities are not unique to Willacy. In 2016, following reports of mismanagement at federal lockups across the U.S., the Justice Department announced it was moving away from using private companies to manage prisons. One federal report found that prisons run by private companies, including MTC, had more safety violations than prisons run by wholly by the U.S. government.
On the day of the Justice Department’s announcement, stocks of the two largest private prison companies in the U.S. — CoreCivic and GEO Group Inc. — fell by nearly 40 percent.
The day after the 2016 election, when Donald Trump claimed victory after running on a platform of pledging to lock up and deport more people who came to the country illegally, GEO Group stock prices rose 21 percent. CoreCivic stocks went up by 43 percent.
MTC is not a publicly traded company, but MTC officials tell NPR that private immigration detention is a sector where there is room for growth and that the company expects to continue evaluating requests from ICE for new facilities.
A complicated choice
The new detention center is a few minutes from Raymondville’s quiet downtown, across the street from the high school.
MTC denied NPR’s request for a tour of the facility. Instead, the company sent a promotional video described as a “virtual tour” of MTC’s three other detention facilities. It shows detainees playing volleyball, taking computer classes and getting medical care from a doctor. The video displays the company’s motto, “BIONIC: Believe it or not, I care.”
For former Willacy corrections officer Luz Montez, the experience she had working there does not match up to that slogan.
Even though she could really use the job, Montez says she would not apply again to work for MTC. She quit because of the conditions but says she understands how hard to come by good jobs are here, and that’s what makes this debate so difficult.
“When they said it was opening up, I was like, ‘You know what, there were a lot of people working there that were from Raymondville. So they need jobs. They’ll have jobs,’ ” she says over doughnuts at Lara’s Bakery. “But at the same time, if people asked me if I [applied], I was like ‘no.’ And I would not recommend anybody to apply.”
In Raymondville, for all intents and purposes, the debate over private immigration detention is settled now that the center is open and filling up with immigrant detainees.
The Trump administration continues to request appropriations to fund more detention center beds, meaning El Valle likely won’t be the last new facility.
Companies in the business of immigrant detention are looking for more towns like Raymondville — places eager to meet a demand that is likely only to grow.
Christina Cala and Allison Mollenkamp contributed reporting.