Willacy prison could return to its original purpose for ICE

RAYMONDVILLE — The site of the “tent-city” prison, once a vital lifeline in this farming area, might reopen as an immigrant detention center.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is interested in using the facility again, Management and Training Corp., the prison’s operator, reported yesterday.

“ICE is actively looking for new beds throughout the United States and they have expressed interest in the Willacy facility,” Celeste McDonald, MTC’s vice president for corporate communications, said in a statement.

“We are working with Willacy County to discuss all options,” McDonald said.

For two years, Willacy County officials have worked with MTC in an effort to reopen the facility.

“I’m optimistic we should be able to arrange something out with an operator and a branch of government,” County Judge Aurelio Guerra said.

Guerra said President Trump’s calls for increased border security have helped pique interest in new detention center beds to hold undocumented immigrants.

“There seems to be a lot more interest here with this presidential administration,” Guerra said. “The demand is more toward ICE. Where we are geographically, with our proximity to the border, plays a big role.”

However, officials offered no details regarding possible economic impact and number of local jobs.

Nearly two years ago, rioting inmates destroyed much the Willacy County Correction Center, a 3,000-bed minimum-security prison made up of 10 tent-like domes holding undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes.

Just weeks after the uprising, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, which housed nearly 3,000 prisoners in the facility, terminated its contract with MTC.

The closure of the prison, which paid Willacy County for every inmate it housed, plunged the area into financial crisis, leading to 400 employee layoffs while slashing a third of the county’s $8.1 million general fund budget.

Sheriff Larry Spence called the facility’s reopening critical to pumping money and jobs into this county plagued with unemployment hovering around 13 percent.

“That’s good they’re thinking about it and trying to work something out,” Spence said. “We can sure use the boost — money coming into the county and providing some jobs for local people.”

It would be the second time ICE has used the facility.

“That facility was built to accommodate ICE,” Guerra said.

In 2006, the $60 million facility opened as the Willacy County Processing Center, holding undocumented immigrants.

But under ICE, the detention center fell far short of developers’ plans, with the agency filling about half of the 3,000 beds in the so-called “tent city.”

By June 2011, ICE had pulled out, leading to the 120 layoffs.

Then, developers proposed the BOP take over the facility.

The BOP turned the facility into a minimum-security prison, nearly filling its 3,000 beds with undocumented immigrants convicted of crimes.

On Feb. 20, 2015, rioting inmates destroyed much of the facility’s tent-like domes, leaving the prison “uninhabitable.”

Since the prison’s closure, MTC has worked to land a new customer.

In May 2015, MTC, which had operated the Willacy County-owned prison since it opened in 2006, offered to accept the BOP’s request for a company to operate a 1,200- to 2,000-bed “low-security” prison.

The BOP proposed that a company hold male “criminal aliens” with about 90 months or less remaining in their sentences in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico or Oklahoma.

The BOP is expected to respond to proposals by MTC and other prison operators by April.