Talk this past summer of a possible contract between Jerome County in south-central Idaho and Immigration Customs Enforcement allowing ICE to lease beds at the Jerome County Correctional facility might have been just that.
The issue raised concerns among the Hispanic community and those who support that community, including dairymen, who employ a large number of foreign-born workers.
But Jerome County commissioners still haven’t seen a contract, and one is pursuing another avenue for the facility’s excess space — a contract with the Idaho Department of Correction.
That commissioner, Charlie Howell, said he read in a news article that the department was going to be moving as many as 1,000 prisoners out of state due to a lack of space.
His first thought was “Why don’t they send them to Jerome?” he said.
“The state of Idaho talks about economic development, so why are we sending our dollars out of state when we can take care of them in-state?” he said.
He talked about the possibility with state legislators Clark Kauffman and Jim Patrick, and Kauffman called the director of the Department of Correction, he said.
Kauffman was told DOC didn’t contact Jerome County about housing prisoners there because officials thought the county was going ahead with an ICE contract, he said.
Howell hasn’t spoken with anyone from DOC, but word from Kauffman was that DOC would be contacting the Jerome County sheriff’s office, he said.
DOC Director Henry Atencio did not return a call from Capital Press seeking comment.
The Jerome County facility already houses state prisoners but doesn’t have a contract from the state, Howell said.
The facility has 132 beds, and occupancy fluctuates between 60 and 80 prisoners a day. About 30 are state prisoners, for which the state pays the county $45 a day, he said.
As for the ICE contract, commissioners first heard of discussions between the Jerome County sheriff’s office and ICE in May or June, he said.
But “a contract was never on the table because we never saw the contract,” he said.
ICE kept saying it was going to send a contract, but it hasn’t happened, he said.
“I got tired of the B.S. Being a businessman, you go on to the next thing,” he said.
Howell is an electrician and part owner of an electrical company.
There was never a timeline on an ICE contract, he said.
“That’s why I got frustrated. Being a businessman, you don’t wait for the guy to show up; you beat the bushes if you’re short of business,” he said.
An ICE contract is a concern with some county citizens and not with others, and he still gets questioned about it, he said.
Within the dairy industry, the concern is the intimidation factor of a bigger ICE presence in the county. Some said workers wouldn’t even come to town because of the intimidation factor, he said.
Idaho Dairymen’s Association was vocal in its opposition to an ICE contract when the issue arose last summer.
“Our concern was the presence of ICE in the Jerome community would be detrimental to our workforce in participating in community events...,” said Rick Naerebout, CEO of IDA.
A contract with ICE for beds at the county jail would increase ICE activity in the area. That stimulated a lot of fear, which played out in several protests at Jerome County meetings, he said.
“We don’t want our workforce to live in fear. That’s not a good situation for anyone in the Magic Valley,” he said.
A greater ICE presence would create an environment where the public would perceive foreign workers as a problem, when they’re anything but. They are family-oriented, hard workers and contributing members of society who also pay taxes, and creating an environment that perceives otherwise makes no sense, he said.
“They fill a much-needed role in our workforce in agriculture,” he said.
The ICE contract aside, the workforce situation is at a critical level. Unemployment has been sitting at 2 percent for some time, which is basically full employment. It’s been hard to find employees for the past couple of years, he said.
“The fact that no contract has materialized, we see that as a positive,” he said.
Lori Haley, ICE western regional communications director, said ICE has been exploring various options for detention space in the area and has been in ongoing discussions with Jerome County.
“At this time, however, a contract with the county has not been finalized and, as such, I can’t say if or when we might begin housing ICE detainees at that location,” she said.