A businessman running for Suffolk County sheriff says he would seek to stop jailing immigrants for deportation unless they have serious criminal records, taking aim at the agency’s lucrative contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“I’m against detaining someone for a longer period of time for something civil or that’s not even criminal,” said Alexander Rhalimi, a Moroccan-born US citizen who owns a transportation company and is trying to unseat a fellow Democrat in the county primary on Thursday. “I don’t think it’s right. It’s costing taxpayers more money.”
Sheriff Steven Tompkins said at a public debate recently that he is reconsidering the ICE contract, though he did not say he would change it. He did not respond to requests for an interview.
“I am seriously looking at that because I’m not in my mind satisfied that the right thing is happening with these folks that are being deported back,” Tompkins said at the debate. “I need a little more information on that and a little more data on that. But I am open to discontinuing the contract.”
Nationally, the debate over immigration detention centers has focused on privately run prisons, but in Massachusetts and elsewhere county jails also house thousands of immigrants nationwide, and their contracts with the behemoth federal agency are a growing source of contention.
In the past, county sheriffs in Massachusetts have said the federal contracts boosted their budgets and public safety by ensuring that criminals are deported. But critics say county governments are also jailing noncriminals for deportation and have demanded that they stop, particularly in Boston, where the city government has shifted toward limiting its cooperation with ICE.
The Suffolk County House of Correction houses nearly 200 immigrants a day and is in a key location for ICE because it is close to the expressway, the Boston immigration court, and Logan International Airport. A former sheriff once called the contract a “lifesaver” for the jail’s budget; ICE pays about $90 a day per detainee to house immigrants in a building that would otherwise sit empty because its open floor plan made it unsafe for housing criminals.
But at least two Suffolk immigrant detainees have died since the contract began in 2003. Advocates for immigrants have held vigils, prayed with detainees, and in 2014 even blockaded the jail, leading to the arrest of 19 activists.
Yolanda Smith, superintendent of the Suffolk County House of Correction, who oversees the campus and the building where immigrants are detained, said in a statement that contracts are assessed periodically and “at this time, we are not planning to terminate our contract with ICE.”
However, she said the jail is in “full support” of the Boston Trust Act, which the Boston City Council passed in 2014 to limit the immigrants police turn over to immigration officials for deportation to serious criminals and those that threaten public safety.
Immigrant detention is emerging as a key issue in the presidential race, though most of the debate swirls around the private, for-profit jails that house 70 percent of the 33,600 people detained on any given day. Democrat Hillary Clinton has vowed to stop detaining immigrants at private centers, while GOP nominee Donald Trump’s position is less clear.
As of last month, Suffolk was holding 192 ICE detainees, mostly men.
ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer declined to comment on the candidates’ comments on the ICE contract, saying the agency does not comment on political events or campaign speeches.
However, he said the Department of Homeland Security “remains committed to providing a safe and humane environment for all those in its custody.” He said ICE runs an “aggressive inspections program” and provides several levels of oversight to ensure that detention centers are safe.
Peter Lowber, a longtime activist who has organized vigils at Suffolk to support immigrants, said the sheriff should end immigration detention altogether. “The whole detention jail process is nonproductive and is a waste of taxpayers’ money and is very abusive to human beings,” he said. “I’m against the whole thing.”
Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, whose jail is detaining 124 immigrants, said he would not consider breaking ties with the federal agency out of concern for public safety.