In the middle of Virginia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, a privately-run immigration detention center that is designed to confine over 700 people per day, now has at most 11 detainees at a cost of about $2 million per month to the federal government.
Luis Oyola never wanted the detention center to exist in the first place. He was just 17, a first-year undergraduate studying environmental science at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, when he heard about the proposal to build it – and a growing resistance to stop it.
In the fall of 2008, through friends involved in social justice movements, he was invited to an organizing meeting at a small homestead called Little Flower, 30 minutes from Charlottesville.
“There were just tons of people of all different races and backgrounds,” Oyola said. That meeting, he remembers, was a contrast to the segregation he felt in Charlottesville.
The meeting centered on efforts by a private company, Immigration Centers of America (ICA), that was negotiating with the town of Farmville on a potential three-way deal with the federal government to build a 125,000 square-foot detention center. The contract would bring not just profit to ICA, but about 200 jobs and revenue to the town. The group spoke both Spanish and English and Sue Frankel-Streit, who lived at Little Flower and would become a longtime collaborator in justice work, asked if anyone could assist them.
“‘I'm bilingual,’” Oyola recalled saying. “And as I sat down, I just was blanking out, only translating every other word. And I was apologizing profusely. But that was my introduction.”
As a Spanish-speaking U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico, Oyola knew he could help in other ways, too. He started visiting heavily Latino neighborhoods in the area, talking to people about public meetings and how to speak out. Over time, he got better at interpretation.
The more he sunk into the work, the more he viewed ICA Farmville as an existential threat, particularly to the more than 250,000 undocumented immigrants in Virginia, many of whom have lived in the U.S. for 10-plus years, according to the Migration Policy Institute. He didn’t know then that he would keep coming back to the issue for over 14 years, as the facility detained at times 800 people per day and then became close to empty because of conditions during the pandemic.
“It was just like, this is oppression,” he said. “It's affecting people that I care about. So I'm going to do something.”
Farmville is an old Virginia town, founded in the late 1700s at the headwaters of the Appomattox River, flanked to the north by estates that were once part of plantations where enslaved people were forced to work. It’s been a railroad town, a mining and a manufacturing town. Today, it’s a working-class southern town, with some 5,000 students at Longwood University and a historic downtown with cafes, furniture stores, and the occasional “For Rent” sign. The town also has a museum commemorating Farmville’s civil rights history. Many historians say local Black students started the school desegregation movement with a 1951 walkout. Those students later joined the Brown v. Board of Education case, which ended legal segregation in U.S. public education. Farmville public schools then defied the federal government and shut down for nine years in the 1960s, rather than integrate.
Before the ICA Farmville detention center opened its doors, up to 300 immigrants at a time were held at Piedmont Regional Jail on the outskirts of town. The Washington Post reported then that investors in the proposed detention center told the Farmville town council that the new facility could house those immigrants instead, and serve as a “mid-Atlantic hub” for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. For council members, who represented a town whose population of 7,000 was dwindling in a recession, the money — payment to become the middleman between a private company and ICE — was also a key selling point. They expected the facility would employ 200 people and generate tax revenue too.
"We had this industry or nothing," Council Member Dr. Edward Gordon told The Washington Post at the time. "Yes, we might come to be known as an ICE hub, but the average person who lives in town won't know where it is."
The detention center would be built on a little thumb of land at the north edge of town, about three miles from downtown Farmville, out of sight and out of mind for most residents. Indeed, this was one of the organizers’ challenges. Most people in the coalition were from Charlottesville, Richmond, and the Washington D.C. area. They struggled to get local residents to join their cause.
But Oyola was invested — he was skipping classes and devoting more time to community organizing. He had spent time in high school immersed in political theory, mostly online, and didn’t feel like he was building on that in school at UVA.
Charlottesville activists had not yet mobilized around immigrant communities the way they later would when Donald Trump was elected president. But by March 2009, several groups converged into a coalition called People United, went to Farmville, and held a protest. Oyola estimates there were about 100 people — a large group for a small town.
Their protests, their organizing didn’t work.
ICA Farmville Detention Center opened in 2010, during the early years of the Barack Obama presidency. Like other detention centers, it’s a sprawling, single story jail-like building, flanked by bare yards and high fences, with cameras and flood lights.
By 2016, the Obama administration unveiled its plan to phase out private prisons, but officials dramatically expanded the use of privately run immigration detention centers, often run by the same companies that managed private prisons. The Biden administration isn’t changing course. César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration expert and professor at the Ohio State University College of Law, said it would be difficult for the government to untangle itself from its vast network of private detention centers. “They haven’t been able to envision a functional immigration law system that doesn’t rely significantly on detaining migrants,” he said.
In 2015, over 325,000 people were detained in 637 facilities around the country, with 72% confined to centers run by for-profit companies according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Through the Trump years, the numbers continued to grow, mostly through the increased detention of immigrants who had no criminal convictions.
ICA Farmville has over 700 beds and at one point in 2019 had close to 800 detainees in custody. The more people ICE arrested and sent to Farmville, the more profit ICA, and the town, made.
“Farmville is a great example of that feeling like you have this big movement and then the machinery just plows through you anyway, you know,” Oyola said.
It wasn’t long until one of the community leaders Oyola worked with, an undocumented immigrant living in Charlottesville, was pulled over for a routine traffic stop and eventually detained and deported. “His children were born here,” said Oyola. “It was just really heartbreaking. And that's when it really hit me. This is the impact of this detention center.”
Families often felt it was safer to send Oyola to interact with immigration officials because of his U.S. citizenship. So, as an undergrad, he would drive almost two hours to the nearest immigration office to pay bonds for people in detention. Then he’d drive almost three hours to Farmville to pick up the person who was released.
Frankel-Streit at Little Flower has watched Oyola organize with community members since those early years. “I never thought of Luis as a teenager. I guess he was very mature,” she said. “I’m sure it was hard on him to do that work. It’s hard work that shouldn’t have to be done.”
Being the stand-in for separated families, Oyola said, was traumatic in ways he is still sorting through. In the middle of 2010, Oyola was put under academic suspension by UVA. By 2012, he decided to drop out entirely. He worked in restaurants to pay the bills and kept organizing.
Ten years later, in 2020, as a pandemic took hold, Oyola began hearing from detained immigrants about the virus. That June, ICE transferred 74 people from Arizona and Florida detention centers to ICA Farmville — 51 of them infected with the virus. ICE said that the transfers were needed to prevent overcrowding at other facilities.
By July, nearly all Farmville detainees, 259 of 298 people, got COVID-19. Fifteen detainees have since sued ICA and ICE for failing to provide safety and medical care. Detainees told the court about crowded conditions of up to 80 people in a dorm. Several said that when they protested, they were put in “the hole,” or isolation cells; one person said he was pepper-sprayed in the face. On August 6, one man who was infected, a 72-year-old Canadian national named James Thomas Hill, died.
At a town council meeting, ICA Farmville Director Jeff Crawford said, “We understand the claims of detainees on their face seem horrible, but I can tell you that I have been present at the facility through the entire ordeal, and it was not a dire situation.” Crawford did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Federal District Judge Leonie Brinkema, however, said that she was disturbed by the conditions and the “bureaucratic circus” that exposed detainees to COVID-19. She halted transfers to ICA Farmville.
Within a few months of the injunction, as detainees were deported or released, the facility held fewer than 150 detainees. By November 2021, 16 months after the COVID-19 outbreak, the number of detainees dropped to under 15.
By this time, Oyola had spent a decade helping build coalitions in central Virginia. He co-founded the Anarchist People of Color Collective and shared a duplex for several years with other organizers in 10th & Page, a historically Black neighborhood in Charlottesville.
In 2018, Oyola joined the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville as director of organizing. It’s a job that has taken him back to Farmville, including in the summer of 2021, when he spoke at Farmville council meetings. With so few detainees, he argued, it made sense to close the detention center, which the town can do with 60 days notice.
Others called into the council meetings, trying to express their feelings in three-minute allotments over crackling audio. At a June 2021 session, a woman named Angelina said she had been fighting for the center’s closure since her husband was detained there in 2018. Then, a man named Augusto, who called into the council meeting from Maryland, said in Spanish that being detained and separated from his family left him traumatized.
The recorded voice of a detained person speaking in Spanish was also shared: “We ask that you hear our voices. Please, we have young children who need us. We’ve already survived wars, a pandemic and now we’re so sick physically and mentally here.”
Last September, three ICA employees, Farmville residents themselves, told the council members that detainees’ accounts weren’t accurate. ICA employee Krystal Dagner said that people in custody are kept in good conditions with consistent medical care, food, and services, communication, and recreation. “We provide a safe environment that houses adult males that ICE has determined detention is necessary while they navigate the immigration process,” she said.
An ICE spokesperson said in an email that it is their policy not to comment on pending litigation, and would not answer questions about ICA Farmville. Internal Homeland Security and ICE audits have rarely found problems with the management of the facility. However, last year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which does evaluations on behalf of Congress, said ICE should improve the independence of those who conduct oversight and that the agency keeps incomplete records of problems at facilities. The report says that the three-way contracts with local governments, called intergovernmental service agreements or IGSAs, are the way most immigrant detainees end up in the custody of private companies. In April, the National Immigrant Justice Center with four detainees sued ICE and Clay County, Indiana, for profiting from their detention center.
ICA continues to receive over $2 million each month from ICE to run the Farmville detention center, despite having at most 13 people in its custody at any time this year. Farmville receives about $15,000 each month from ICE, $1 per a minimum of 500 detainees per day, as part of the three-way deal with ICA. In 2021, Farmville had a $22 million budget.
Farmville’s mayor, David Whitus, and several town council members did not respond to interview requests. The town manager did provide records of financial transactions and communication but did not respond to questions about the provided content.
But Brian Vicent, who was elected to the town council in 2018, said that he does not have “a hard and fast answer” on whether the town should continue its arrangement with ICA and ICE. Most of the comments they’ve gotten have come from out of town, he said.
“I think that the issue of the facility is a much larger issue than Farmville,” he said. “Immigration and the private prison industrial complex are issues bigger than our locality. Folks would be best served to address the federal government and Congress.”
Whitus announced in March that he will not be running for re-election in November. Vincent is running for the position.
Vincent added by text message, “Please implore the folks you know who want to come here to this country to follow the lawful path to citizenship.”
It’s not always the case that detainees in immigration detention broke a law. Immigrants in detention have often never been convicted of crimes, or they have already served sentences given by judges. As they await the outcomes of their cases, they are placed in “civil detention,” not meant as punishment.
On the whole, immigration detention nationwide has sharply decreased because there are fewer people coming to the U.S. and because of policy changes, including a contested federal pandemic-era health order called Title 42 that lets border officials turn away asylum seekers at U.S. land borders. In the summer of 2019, over 50,000 people were being detained on average each day. By February 2021, one month after Biden took office, that number dropped to fewer than 10,000 people. While most detention centers have seen a decrease in their detainee population, none that are continuing to operate have had as dramatic a drop as ICA Farmville.
Biden’s 2023 budget proposes to reduce funding for immigration detention by 9,000 beds, to 25,000 beds total, closer to how many people are now detained on a daily basis. In March, a Reuters investigation found that ICE is ending, pausing, or reducing its use of four jails in Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, and Louisiana. García Hernández, the aforementioned Ohio State University law professor, said that it is striking that these four facilities were chosen because of poor conditions. “Symbolically, it’s meaningful. It conveys a message that there is some change,” he said.
But there is also no indication politically, said García Hernández, that the Biden administration will stop detaining so many people.
As of April, there were 11 people detained at ICA Farmville on average each day. Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, a lawyer at Legal Aid Justice Center who represents Farmville detainees, said people in custody there spend their days “rattling around in this huge facility,” some continuing years-long stays as they wait for their immigration cases to resolve. Several of their clients have had ongoing fatigue, respiratory issues, or trouble focusing since they contracted COVID-19 while detained.
On April 26, ICA detainees and the government had an almost 8-hour conference to come to a settlement in the lawsuit. Sandoval-Moshenberg says they made progress but have not yet finalized an agreement.
Oyola knows fellow organizers are growing weary of the fight. But ICA Farmville, he said, fits in a larger context, related to the same interests he held tight as a student at UVA: environmental science. He still thinks about the history and segregation of Charlottesville, colonial slavery, climate change, and “who has a right to the land.”
“But you know, this is why we need to question the detention system as a whole,” said Oyola. “It requires a different way of thinking about our immigration procedures, completely, down to the root.”
When he looks back on almost 15 years of organizing, he also sees progress.
“I was looking back through old notebooks. And like, literally the first day I was in Charlottesville, I wrote down little notes of how I would plan to organize Charlottesville,” said Oyola. “And it's like, oh, wow, I did a lot of those things.”