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On February 14, 2024, the Farmville Town Council in Virginia held a public hearing and again heard testimony from people expressing opposition to the privately operated U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center located in the town. The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and National Immigration Project (NIPNLG) support efforts to shut down immigration detention centers including the Farmville facility, and to prevent ICE expansion in the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia metro area. NIJC Senior Policy Analyst Jesse Franzblau and NIPNLG Staff Attorney Amber Qureshi shared the following testimony in person during the February 14 Farmville Town Council meeting before the Farmville mayor and town council members.

On behalf of my colleagues and the thousands of individuals NIJC and NIPNLG serve every year, we would like to express our strong solidarity with people who have experienced ICE detention and the Virginia communities calling on the Farmville Town Council to end its complicity in the inhumane immigration detention system. Farmville must stop doing the bidding of Immigration Centers of America (ICA) (and its new affiliate company, “Abyon LLC”) and end its part of the Intergovernmental Service Agreement (IGSA) with ICE and the private prison company.

Logos for the National Immigration Project (in red) and National Immigrant Justice Center (in green) on a white background)

For decades, NIJC and NIPNLG have dedicated themselves to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. NIJC provides direct legal services to more than 10,000 low-income individuals each year and both of our organizations advocate for these populations through policy reform, impact litigation, and public education. NIJC and NIPNLG monitor and document abuses in the federal immigration detention system.

ICA-Farmville is a tragic illustration of the inhumanity, impunity, and cover-up of systemic abuses that permeate the immigration detention system. As the result of an internal government review in 2022, senior federal immigration officials recommended ICA-Farmville and a number of other abusive facilities be closed or scaled down. However, ICE and ICA continue to push for the facility’s contract to continue. Documents obtained through public records requests revealed that in September 2023 the Town of Farmville agreed to extend the facility’s contract behind closed doors, without a public meeting or notice.

The short-term contract extension in September 2023 exposed the secret dealings that keep the detention facility in operation. Since then, additional records obtained through public records requests expose how the company ICA has been secretly pushing for the Town of Farmville to agree to restructure the contract arrangement before it expires on March 29, 2024. On December 19, 2023, ICA Chief Executive Officer Russell B. Harper sent a letter to the Farmville town manager notifying the town of the company’s intent to transfer the subcontract to a newly created entity called Abyon, LLC, an “affiliate” of ICA-Farmville. In order to transfer the subcontract, however, Farmville needed to secure approval from ICE’s contracting officer. The opaque efforts to transfer the subcontract to a new company raises alarm that ICA and ICE could be trying to bypass open contracting requirements, maneuvering behind the scenes to keep ICA-Farmville open indefinitely, simply under a new name.

The Farmville town manager had some questions about the process, asking ICA if “the subcontract need[ed] to be changed…legally,” whether the transfer meant that ICA-Farmville would go away, and if Abyon was technically an affiliate of ICA-Farmville. ICA responded saying that the owners of ICA-Farmville and Abyon “were the same” and that made them “affiliates.” After the exchange, the town manager agreed to send a signed letter, drafted by ICA, to ICE to request the subcontract transfer arrangement.

The internal records do not reveal ICE’s response to the request, leaving the public in the dark regarding the federal government’s decision making process. The records also raise additional questions, such as: Has the contract been extended? Did ICE approve of the transfer of the subcontract to the new ICA affiliate, Abyon? Does the transfer mean that the Town of Farmville is no longer part of the agreement? Does ICE still plan to engage in an open contracting process (which means publicly posting a Request for Proposals) for a direct contract between ICE and the private company without the Town of Farmville’s participation?

The public deserves answers to these questions. Farmville officials should listen to the voices of people impacted by ICE detention and stop taking orders from private prison executives. While advocates continue to demand that ICE close ICA-Farmville and release all of the people currently detained at the facility, we also call on the town council to ensure that Farmville conducts public business with transparency, and most importantly, commits to ending its complicity in the abusive immigration detention system.

Jesse Franzblau is a senior policy analyst at NIJC. Contact Jesse by email.

Amber Qureshi is a staff attorney at the National Immigration Project.