In Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, an agreement to open a new immigrant detention facility has drawn backlash from the local community, prompting a lawsuit by the Pennsylvania ACLU. If the facility opens, it will be the largest immigrant detention center in the Northeast.
Immigrant Detention Facilities
In the United States, Immigrant Detention Facilities house individuals while they await legal determinations concerning their immigration status. Many organizations, including the ACLU and Freedom for Immigrants, oppose these facilities on humanitarian grounds. Nonetheless, the number of immigrant detention centers has increased in recent years. The expansion of the immigrant population and immigrant enforcement efforts have led to an expansion of these facilities across the country.
Plans to Open a New Immigrant Detention Facility in Clearfield County
On Sept. 28, 2021, Clearfield County Commissioners voted to approve two contracts for a proposed immigrant detention center. The first contract, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), would convert the Moshannon Valley Correctional Facility into the Commonwealth’s newest immigrant detention center. Currently, the Moshannon Valley Facility houses up to 1,878 inmates. The second contract involves the GEO Group, Inc., a Florida-based private prison operator, which would presumably operate the facility.
According to a recent Right-to-Know Law request, Clearfield County will receive more than $263 million as a result of the 5-year agreement. Advocates expect the proposed facility to serve as a hub for ICE operations nationwide.
The proposed center would become the largest immigrant detention center in the Northeast United States. This proposal comes in the wake of a recent announcement by York County, Pennsylvania, to cease the detention of immigrants facing deportation proceedings.
Clearfield County residents criticized the agreement for having taken place behind closed doors.
Allegations of Sunshine Act Violations
The vote to approve these contracts quickly drew backlash from the local community as well as the legal community. According to the Pennsylvania ACLU, county commissioners failed to provide adequate notice to the public before the Sept. 28, 2021 meeting, during which the contracts were approved.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges violations of the Sunshine Act, also known as the Open Meetings Law, which requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in open and public meetings. To promote government transparency, the law requires prior notice for meetings so the public can attend, participate, and comment on proposals. Violations of the Sunshine Act include criminal charges, fines, and assessment of attorneys’ fees. Click here to see the language of the statute.
Similar allegations were recently made against Berks County Commissioners. According to that lawsuit, commissioners violated the Sunshine Act by excluding county residents from the decision-making process when voting on whether to support a proposed immigration detention facility.
Legal Challenges Involving the GEO Group, Inc.
Sunshine Act lawsuits are not the only legal troubles affecting parties involved in the Clearfield County agreement. A federal jury recently ordered the GEO Group, Inc., to pay nearly $17.3 million in back-pay to immigration detainees who were to be paid $1.00 a day as part of a work program in a Washington State detention facility.
According to budget information obtained by WITF.org through a Right-to-Know request, the proposed Clearfield County facility includes the same work program that is the subject of the Washington State lawsuit. Whether the $1.00-per-day payments would withstand legal challenge in Pennsylvania remains to be seen.
Given the heated debate surrounding immigration policy in the United States, it comes as no surprise that community members wish to voice their opinions about proposed immigrant detention centers. Certainly, the legal issues affecting Berks and Clearfield Counties highlight the need for county officials to ensure public involvement in the decision-making process.