Protest targets Montco prisonís deal to hold illegal immigrants

June 29, 2012|By Michael Matza, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

They chanted. They marched. They sat cross-legged on the two-lane highway in front of the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in Lower Providence Township on Thursday, closing it to traffic for more than 90 minutes.

"No papers, no fear, immigrants are marching here!" the three dozen or so demonstrators shouted.

"Hey, Obama, don't deport my mama!"

After a police lieutenant with a bullhorn asked the protesters three times to disperse, officers swooped in on foot and on bicycles, and made three arrests.

Handcuffed and taken into custody were Jose Luna, 23; Erika Guadalupe Nunez, 21; and Sheila Quintana, 19. Luna is a cook and server in Norristown. The women are Philadelphia-area college students. The three were born in Mexico and brought to the United States as children by their parents. Undocumented, unapologetic, and unafraid are words they used to introduce themselves.

At their booking, police said, they refused to identify themselves further. They were charged with disorderly conduct and blocking the highway - misdemeanors. Bail was set at $3,000. Then they were locked up in the facility that was the target of their ire.

The 2,000-bed county jail was the focus of their demonstration because it recently agreed to house illegal immigrants arrested by the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"We are here protesting Montgomery County prison until it stops honoring ICE detentions," said Fernanda Marroquin, of Dream Activist-Pennsylvania, a support group for undocumented youth, which organized the protest. A similar one took place two months ago outside the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services center in Philadelphia.

Under the federal-county arrangement, Montgomery County sets aside 60 beds - 40 for men, 20 for women - for immigrants awaiting trial or deportation. ICE pays the county $75 a day per prisoner.

In a brief news conference at the edge of the protest Thursday, Montgomery County director of communications Frank Custer said the federal-county contract was designed to make maximum use of the prison, which underwent a $24 million expansion, adding a 500-bed dormitory that opened last year. At the moment, he said, some immigration prisoners are housed for brief stays at the facility under a 12-year-old contract between Montgomery County and the U.S. Marshals Service.

"Especially in these economic times, we need to use our facilities to the greatest extent," he said. "If we have the capacity, it helps the people of Montgomery County to use our facilities to the fullest."

According to recent reports, the correctional facility has been averaging about 1,700 inmates a day. At this point, there are virtually no ICE detainees among them.

In addition to Montgomery County, ICE in Pennsylvania has similar arrangements with correctional facilities in Allegheny, Cambria, Clinton, Erie, Pike, and York Counties. In Berks County, ICE runs a family residential center for prisoners detained with their children.

Historically, ICE has found it more efficient to contract with county prisons instead of building its own detention centers, although recently it opened facilities in Orange County, Calif., and Karnes County, Texas.

ICE says that by contracting with the counties, it is better able to align its changing needs for bed space with the ebb and flow of illegal immigrants. ICE maintains a capacity of about 32,000 beds across about 300 facilities nationwide.

In addition to paying per-diems for the immigrant prisoners, the three-year contract with Montgomery County calls for the federal government to reimburse the county for the cost of transporting the prisoners when necessary. County officials say they will not make a profit on the ICE arrangement, but rather see it as a needed source of revenue.

In an interview last week in the Doylestown Intelligencer, the county's chief financial officer, Uri Monson, likened the prison to a plane with some unfilled seats.

"You might as well fill those seats, or fill those beds," he said, "because you are operating the plane and prison anyway."
Contact Michael Matza
at 215-854-2541 or

Protest targets Montco prison’s deal to hold illegal immigrants -