The GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based prison firm, is partnering with at least one Florida municipality on a proposed immigration detention center in South Florida.

The GEO Group and Florida City are working on an application to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to bring the detention center to southern Miami-Dade County. Under the proposal, the company would design, build and manage the facility, and the city would provide 40 acres of land.

In a letter to a member of the Miami-Dade County Commission, Florida City Mayor Otis Wallace explains that he and the CEO of the GEO Group met at federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington to discuss the project, which according to the letter would cost about $150 million to build and include beds for up to 2,300 detainees. Wallace did not respond to e-mails and phone messages seeking comment on the proposal.

The company and the city would be responsible for building the proposed facility under guidelines set by ICE. Two other South Florida municipalities, one in Palm Beach County and one in Broward, are also competing for the facility, according to Wallace’s letter.

Wallace notes in his letter that GEO is a leader in the private prison industry and that the facility would bring hundreds of jobs to his city. He was seeking support for an extension of public transportation service to the proposed site, which the commission approved in a resolution.

A letter from Amber Martin, GEO’s vice president of contract administration, thanks to Wallace for his support in this project and for meeting with ICE in Washington D.C.

An e-mail from an ICE spokesman explains that the proposed multi-purpose facility would house medium-security detainees as well as immigrant detainees who have not committed crimes but are involved in deportation proceedings. It also says ICE is evaluating three proposals from different governments, in some cases with a private company as a partner.

The ICE spokesman declined to comment on which other local governments were competing for the detention center. Asked about the GEO Group’s role in this project, he said that is not public information at this time.

The e-mail from ICE also explains that:

  • The selected government entity and its partner would be responsible for covering the cost of building the facility if construction is necessary.
  • If construction is necessary the cost of the proposed facility might be in the range of 100 – 200 million dollars.
  • The facility should be able to house approximately 1800 detainees.
  • The facility will help ICE reduce “the transfers of detainees from one geographic area to another due to the lack of detention resources.”

ICE’s description of the project, and other related documents, can be found here.

The GEO Group, based in Boca Raton, already operates the Broward Transitional Center, which houses mostly non-criminal detainees, under a contract with ICE. As for the proposed South Florida facility, GEO spokesman Pablo Paez said in an e-mail that “as a matter of policy, our company cannot comment on any specific business development efforts.”

ICE’s use of private detention facilities has been a subject of controversy. The Detention Watch Network released a report last week that indicates that ICE maintains a daily population of over 32,000 immigrant detainees. According to the report, in the last five years, the number of immigrants detained and the costs of detaining them has doubled, costing taxpayers $1.7 billion at an average of $122 a day per bed, and nearly 2.5 million individuals have passed through immigration detention facilities since 2003.

Emily Tucker of the Detention Watch Network said during a telephone conference last week that ICE relies on the private prison industry for immigration detention. In 2009 approximately 49 percent of immigration detention beds were privately managed. By comparison, only 8 percent of prison beds in the criminal justice system were managed by private companies.

Tucker added that the leading private prison operators – Corrections Corporation of America, the Geo Group, and Management and Training Corporation – manage a third of all immigration detention beds. CCA, the largest ICE detention contractor, operates a total of 14 ICE facilities with over 14,000 beds. GEO is the second-largest ICE contractor, with seven facilities and over 7,000 beds.

National Public Radio reported last year that Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, who claimed Arizona’s immigration enforcement law S.B. 1070 was his idea, met with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a membership organization of state lawmakers, corporations, and other associations, including private prison firms, which helped push for the law.

Private immigration detention facilities have drawn local opposition in other parts of the country. Grassroots Leadership, a community organization that partnered with the Detention Watch Network on its research into the private prison industry, is part of a Texas coalition of civil rights groups that wrote (.pdf) to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in February to oppose ICE plans to contract a new immigration detention center in Karnes county with the GEO Group. The letter contends that the selection of the site and contractor for Karnes county was done with no input from the community. It also points to cases of abuse and neglect in GEO Group Texas prisons and detention centers.

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