A tiny Eastern Shore town mired in recession-era debt has for months been exploring the prospect of welcoming a private immigration detention center.
Town officials were given tours of a federal contractor’s similar facility in south central Virginia and considered zoning changes to allow for a detention center within town limits. Opponents had begun to mobilize.
But officials from Sudlersville in Queen Anne’s County and Immigration Centers of America — the private, Virginia-based operator of such centers — now say those discussions are on hold amid federal funding questions.
“Given the federal budget uncertainty and some other factors, it doesn’t make sense to keep spending money on a process with so many unknowns,” ICA spokesman John Truscott said in an email Saturday. “So, there will be no more activity on ICA’s behalf regarding a site at any Maryland location.”
Truscott did not respond to additional questions from The Baltimore Sun.
Federal immigration officials sparked ICA’s interest in April with an advertisement searching for parties interested in opening a detention center near Baltimore. The company responded to the ad and pointed to its decade-old contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to run a private immigrant detention facility in Farmville, Virginia.
ICA was born out of the federal government looking for an alternative to county jails, Truscott said in August.
“Typically someone who has crossed a border ... most do not have criminal backgrounds,” he said. “In a jail, they’re housed with criminals, which is less than ideal. The county jails are not meant to house families who may not have had any health care."
When the ad was published, ICA was already looking to expand into other states such as Illinois and Wisconsin, despite protests from progressive groups opposing the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
ICE officials said in the ad that an ideal site needed to house 600 to 800 adult men and women within a 50-mile radius of Baltimore. The facility should also be within 90 minutes of the Baltimore and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, airports to facilitate moving prisoners between judicial districts, correctional institutions and foreign countries, the ad states.
Maryland immigration advocates scrambled to learn where ICE might put the operation, calling up local jails, county executives and sheriffs. The ACLU of Maryland filed a Freedom of Information request to see who responded to the ad and what sites might be considered. And an activist with Maryland WISE Women posed in an email to ICE officials as a prospective contractor looking for updates about the agency’s search.
To date, ICE has not taken the next step toward opening a Maryland facility: issuing a public request for proposals.
ICE officials did not respond to a request for comment by the original deadline for publication, citing personnel changes.
In a statement provided Thursday, ICE spokeswoman Kate Pote said the agency “is not involved in project or proposal discussions for a facility in Queen Anne’s County. Such talks in this context appear to be occurring between the private sector and the local government entity involved.”
In Sudlersville, some elected leaders believed doing business with ICA was a chance to lift the tiny municipality out of millions of dollars in debt.
Home to about 500 people, Sudlersville is a quiet town with two employees and an annual budget under $400,000, according to court records. Its footprint includes a handful of businesses, an elementary and a middle school, a post office and a volunteer fire company.
In 2007, several housing developers told town officials they were interested in building about 650 homes in Sudlersville, which would require upgrades to the town’s water and sewer systems. Changes in federal water regulations were also a factor when the town commissioners decided to move forward with the upgrades.
But the national housing market soon crashed and the development that was expected to help pay for the project never came. Sudlersville was left with about $6 million in debt, which town officials estimated would take 40 years to pay off, according to minutes of a 2017 town commissioners’ meeting.
Interim Town Manager Elizabeth Hussein declined to answer questions about Sudlersville’s financial situation.
Court records show a construction and engineering firm the town hired to complete the sewer upgrades is suing Sudlersville for unpaid services and interest totaling more than $900,000. The town is disputing the claim and contends it did not make the final payments because the project was never completed, court records state.
“We’re a very tiny town and we’re broke,” Town Commissioner David Ruffner said. “We have a sewer plant and a water tower and no one to use it.”
In early fall, the Annapolis office of the lobbying group Cornerstone Government Affairs approached the Queen Anne’s County commissioners on behalf of ICA to see whether they knew of anywhere with enough water and sewer capacity to support a detention center.
Take a look at Sudlersville, County Commissioner James Moran said he told the lobbyists.
Moran helped set up a meeting between town officials and ICA, and the company soon invited Ruffner and fellow Sudlersville Commissioner Ronald Ford to tour the Farmville detention center in Virginia.
As Ruffner walked down the facility’s halls in November, detainees in jumpsuits greeted him and Ford, saying, “Good morning." Locals at a nearby restaurant said, “What detention center?” when the men stopped for a bite and asked about ICA, Ruffner said.
And Farmville’s mayor and town manager met with the Sudlersville officials during the trip, sharing how they felt ICA was a model business that paid taxes, purchased water from the town and provided about 170 jobs with good, federal-level wages.
Ruffner and Ford also asked Farmville officials how the public reacted when ICA sought to build its business there.
As immigration authorities have stepped up arrests nationwide and proposed creating multiple new detention centers across the country, grassroots campaigns to derail such projects have advanced. And some states such as California have banned private prisons and for-profit immigration detention centers like ICA runs.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said in a statement Monday that he had serious concerns about the expansion of private detention centers in Maryland, and elsewhere in the country, "given the president’s horrific immigration policies.
“For-profit, private prisons house an outsized portion of all immigrant detainees, yet hide behind loopholes in the law when it comes to performance,” Cardin said.
A spokeswoman for Sen. Van Hollen said the Democrat has long opposed private prisons and found ICA’s proposition troubling.
“Additionally, ICE has not been forthcoming about their operations in our state,” the spokeswoman said. "This lack of transparency is unacceptable, and the Senator will keep pushing for answers.”
ICA Farmville saw two protest groups outside its walls this year. And the company came under criticism when its facility experienced an outbreak of mumps in June, prompting officials to implement a temporary quarantine.
Several weeks after Ruffner and Ford returned home, the five-member town commission opened discussions on a possible zoning change to allow for detention centers within town limits.
Those discussions are now on hold, Ruffner said.
Sudlersville commissioners are currently considering another potentially lucrative development opportunity — a motorsports arena and track to be developed by Travis Pastrana, an Annapolis-born motocross and X Games superstar.
Meanwhile, the Queen Anne’s Conservation Association opposes both projects. Association representatives called ICA’s history “troubled” and urged residents in an open letter to attend upcoming Sudlersville meetings to object.
“QACA believes there are other, far less harmful options that should be explored before greenlighting these projects,” association Executive Director Jay Falstad said in the letter.
Former County Commissioner Gene Ransom, who is vehemently opposed to seeing ICE expand its footprint, said he was relieved those discussions are on hold. He had been planning to attend an upcoming town commission meeting to oppose the project.
Still, Ransom worried the discussions could be revived when “no one is paying attention.”
“Everyone who opposes it needs to remain vigilant, because it could pop up again at any time,” Ransom said. “I don’t want to see these facilities in Queen Anne’s County or anywhere in Maryland at any time.”
Ruffner lamented how town residents “get up in arms” these days when leaders float ideas to solve the debt problem.
“We’re trying to get this town out of this mess as best we can,” Ruffner said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker contributed to this article.