Congresswoman and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz continues to publicly maintain her support for the controversial construction of a new immigration jail in her South Florida district, even as her liberal colleagues claim that such facilities contribute to family break-ups and the mistreatment of suspected illegal aliens.
Citizen groups have collected more than 11,000 signatures, but claim she has refused to meet with them.
In 2011, Wasserman Schultz and Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson signed a letter in support of the construction of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Southwest Ranches, a swanky town 20 miles west of Ft. Lauderdale. Since then, assorted liberal groups have opposed the project along with a similar facility in Crete, Ill., a working class town 30 miles south of Chicago.
While the two parallel projects provide identical reasons for liberals to object, activists in the two communities have different political realities to contend with. In Illinois, Democratic Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Luis Gutierrez lead a coalition of groups in opposition to the ICE facility. Florida, however, is a different story.
“I am writing in support of the application submitted by the Town of Southwest Ranches, Florida,” Wasserman Schultz and Nelson wrote to ICE last year.
Since then both have remained largely silent on the issue even as activists and residents of Southwest Ranches have raised loud objections. One citizens coalition reports collecting more than 11,000 signatures aimed at persuading Wasserman Schultz and Nelson to withdraw their support.
The pressure may have given Nelson pause: In January he wrote to ICE again, this time expressing new concerns about the proposed facility. He asked for information about whether the facility is needed and its impact on existing ICE facilities, and relayed concerns from local residents. ICE responded in February, claiming strong community involvement in its decision-making.
Wasserman Schultz’ support appears unshaken, and her office did not reply to numerous emails and phone calls for comment. Bill DiScipio, a resident of Southwest Ranches and chief organizer of a group against the detention center, is not surprised. He told The Daily Caller that Wasserman Schultz has refused several requests to meet with members of his group.
Discipio’s objection to the immigration prison isn’t related to immigration politics, he said. His main concerns are that the ICE facility will blight a swanky community whose residents include Miami Heat center Udonis Haslem. He also objects to the plan to let a private contractor, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), run the facility.
CCA is also poised to operate the Crete, Ill., facility. There, Democratic Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Luis Gutierrez are actively engaged in trying to stop it.
The two congressmen claimed in a February press release that building a new immigration jail would blight neighborhoods, contribute to family disintegration and force suspected illegal immigrants into inhumane living conditions.
“I don’t want the south suburbs to become famous for building prisons and breaking up families,” Jackson said then.
“Regardless of your feelings about immigrants, Crete is a vibrant and charming small town. That image would change drastically with a prison.”
Jackson’s office did not respond to several emails and phone calls from The Daily Caller seeking comment for this story.
Gutierrez, a frequent opponent of tough anti-illegal-immigration proposals, agreed in the February release.
“Rep. Jesse Jackson is on it. Many people look to me on anything related to immigrants and immigration, but we work as a team,” he said, “and he is an outstanding leader on the immigration issue and for immigrant families in Illinois. He is absolutely right that economic development through detention and deportation is a dead end street and doomed to fail.”
Liberal advocacy groups have lined up to oppose the Illinois project, including the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, a Services Employees International Union local and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Adding to the intensity of oppositions for liberals like Jackson Jr. and Gutierrez is the fact that Corrections Corporation of America has been linked with the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council. In March the liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman summed up liberals’ visceral opposition.
“Many ALEC-drafted bills pursue standard conservative goals: union-busting, undermining environmental protection, tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy,” Krugman wrote. “ALEC seems, however, to have a special interest in privatization — that is, on turning the provision of public services, from schools to prisons, over to for-profit corporations.”
“And some of the most prominent beneficiaries of privatization, such as the online education company K12 Inc. and the prison operator Corrections Corporation of America, are, not surprisingly, very much involved with the organization.”
Other objections are coming from the Latino-rights group Cuéntame, through a documentary film called “Immigrants For Sale.” The movie’s trailer shows Southwest Ranches residents complaining that Wasserman Schultz hasn’t been responsive to their questions.
In December, the film shows, dozens activists descended on the congresswoman’s district office.
“We didn’t even meet with her,” said one woman, “because she doesn’t even come here to say, ‘okay, let me meet with my constituents … to talk about this.’”
Both ICE and CCA told TheDC that objections to the planned facilities aren’t rooted in reality. ICE spokesperson Gail Montenegro said an email that the Crete, Ill. Facility was part of the agency’s “long-term effort to reform the immigration detention system, emphasizing the health and safety of detainees in ICE custody, while increasing federal oversight and improving the conditions of confinement within the system.”
Montenegro added that many detainees in new ICE facilities would be transferred from overcrowded neighboring county jails. Those in the proposed Florida facility, ICE has said, would come from its own processing center in Miami.
Steve Owen, spokesperson for CCA, dismissed the idea that his company is part of a conspiracy to put profits over humane treatment.
“I’ve been with this company for seventeen years,” he told TheDC. “I’ve worked at many of our facilities before I became head of public affairs. Our 17,000 are dedicated to operating safe security. We provide a solution to the government’s expressed need.”
Owen also said a CCA-commissioned study concluded that the new immigration jails in Florida and Illinois would each generate about $1 million in new annual tax revenues for their local communities.
None of this matters to activists in and around Southwest Ranches, Florida who hope to convince Debbie Wasserman Schultz to join other legislators in the party she leads. Her opposition to the new immigration jail, they say, should be a no-brainer — and would be, if she would hear them out.
“We’ve made numerous attempts to contact Debbie Wasserman Schultz,” reads a message at the end of Cuéntame’s film trailer. “She has yet to respond.”