IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — The rural jail that has long been the largest detention facility for immigrants facing deportation in Iowa plans to stop housing long-term detainees without additional federal funding or other changes, its administrator said Thursday.
The Hardin County Jail has informed the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that it plans to end its current contract, citing a declining detainee population and new standards that have dramatically increased costs for medical care and suicide prevention, administrator Nick Whitmore said.
Negotiations between the federal agency and the jail are ongoing, and no changes are expected to happen imminently, he said. But without changes, the county plans to stop housing detainees for months or longer while they face deportation proceedings and seek to convert to a short-term facility that houses detainees for only 72 hours.
The jail is based in Eldora, a town of 2,700 people about 75 miles north of Des Moines, and has long been a sad destination for families with loved ones who are in custody pending potential deportation.
Whitmore said standards issued by ICE in 2019 increased costs for the county by an estimated $150,000 annually, roughly doubling its medical costs. At the same time, the number of detainees housed at the jail has dropped from around 70 historically to 30 today as part of a nationwide trend, he said.
He said the jail receives $70 per day per detainee from the agency, and estimates that it would have to increase to more than $100 to cover the new costs. He said much of the new costs involve providing on-site psychiatric services for certain detainees, including those on suicide watch.
Whitmore said the standards were good for detainees, but that they didn’t make financial sense for the county given the drop in the number of detainees housed there.
“Anybody who is a proponent should appreciate the very high level of standards we have to meet in order to house them and places do very well,” he said. “But we’re so small in the big picture and Hardin County just made a decision it doesn’t pencil out.”
The number of people detained by ICE has plunged nationwide, partly as a result of pressure to reduce populations at facilities to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The agency reported a detained population of 14,216 last week, down from around 50,000 two years ago.
Whitmore said Hardin County has been an ICE facility for two decades. While it has long housed the most detainees in Iowa, other county jails, including those in Linn and Polk, also hold detainees for ICE.
Advocates for immigrants said Thursday the county should end, not change, its relationship with ICE.
“Hardin County Jail’s contract with ICE to detain and deport immigrant workers is a stain on our community’s reputation, it doesn’t bring us any benefit and it needs to be shut down,” Julie Duhn, an Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement member from Eldora, said in a statement.