The immigrant jail outside this remote South Texas town erupted in a riot in 2015, after years of alleged sexual abuse, vermin infestation, and overcrowding had made it one of the most notorious lockups in the country. Advocates hailed the prison’s closure shortly after the riot, but the loss of hundreds of jobs in such a small town was a major blow.
Now, amid President Trump’s immigration crackdown, the facility is poised to reopen. Though two previous attempts to jail undocumented immigrants here ended in failure, local leaders recently signed a contract welcoming Immigration and Customs Enforcement back to the area, in the hopes that it will bring an economic boom.
The new detention facility, formerly called the Willacy County Correctional Center, faces little local opposition despite the region’s demographic makeup: Almost 90 percent of the county’s residents are Latino, and 67 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Even as “Abolish ICE” emerges as a rallying cry among some Democrats, in Willacy the influx of jobs will be a godsend, local leaders say. “I’ve got a lot of phone calls from [out-of-state] activists, but not my constituents,” Willacy County Commissioner Eliberto Guerra told me last week, as a small crowd of demonstrators drove in to oppose the new detention center. “So am I going to represent my constituents or activists? Because 95 percent of Willacy County wants the jobs.”