Among South Florida's upscale, rural enclaves, where peacocks roam and horse trails are as common as sidewalks, town leaders chose to bring in much of their profit from an strange business: a prison.
Merely the leaders of Southwest Ranches continued their plans quiet from residents for about a decade, and the project has at present inflated into what would be one of the federal government's biggest immigrant detention centers. The town would have to compensate $150,000 annually to continue the prison, however officials state the town would turn a profit by acquiring 4 percent of what U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement compensates the company operating the prison to hold inmates there.
A lot of residents eventually caught wind of the idea this year, when the immigration agency pronounced a tentative deal, and they're furious. They've held protests at public meetings, considered whether to recall the mayor prior to his March election and whether to rectify the town charter to make it easier to fire the city attorney pressing the deal.
The objection over the prison has made an odd set of allies among the town's affluent residents, a lot of whom are suspicious of illegal immigrants, and longtime militants who battle for immigrants, legal or not.
The planned facility is part of the federal government's new plan to move immigrants from jails to detention centers it states are better for accommodating people without any criminal background. The centers are also believed to be easier to reach for detainees' relatives and lawyers.
Plans are in the works for other facilities near San Antonio, Texas, and in Essex County, N.J. and Orange County, Calif. However none of those proposals has made the rage seen in Southwest Ranches, the Fort Lauderdale suburb where telenovelas are filmed in the shaded ranches, and wealthy developers, Miami Dolphins football players and others seek privacy and a country lifestyle.
Diana Bramhall is one of 7,000 people living in the town. She trains horses and grows an array of exotic avocados at the Southwest Ranches home she has lived for 18 years. She hadn't heard of the prison plan until last year.
"I don't want my town built on the back of the detention of illegal immigrants," Bramhall stated. "I think there are better ways to make money."
However according to Mayor Jeff Nelson and others involved at the time, the plan for some kind of prison run by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest private prison operator, was always integral to Southwest Ranches' ability to survive.
Nelson thinks the plan has been out in the open, and officials list more than two dozen public meetings over the last decade where it was talked over. However residents assert the town did small to inform them.
An announcement for a Nov. 5 meeting about the detention center with ICE, CCA and Southwest Ranches officials was listed on the town website only as an "information meeting."
When the town incorporated in 2000, leaders annexed a 24-acre parcel of nearby land, sandwiched between a small women's prison and a dump. CCA had bought the land just three years before. It was a curious move. The land wasn't linked by a road to the rest of the town. A lot of residents never even drove by it.
The town first attempted to construct a 700-bed county jail. By 2005, Southwest Ranches and CCA settled on a detention facility. The proposal was part of a increasing trend among private prison contractors to move away from state and local facilities to federal ones. ICE facilities alone at present furnish about 12 percent, or almost $200 million of CCA's total annual revenue, according to company filings.
Southwest Ranches and CCA sent a draft plan to ICE for review in 2007, two years prior to the agency formally put out its most recent call for new proposals, according to records held by The Associated Press through a public information request.
In the most previous version of the deal, calling for some 1,500 beds, Southwest Ranches could produce over $1.5 million yearly if ICE keeps the center full year round. CCA officials state the number is closer to $400,000, in part because a lot of beds may not constantly be full, with another $400,000 in real estate taxes.
The 13-square mile town, which prides itself on low taxes, needs the revenue, lately telling the federal government it was struggling to meet its $9 million budget.
"We'll get a commission on every bed, I get that," stated Bramhall. "But it bothers me that for my city, (such a large section) is now going to be from a jail. It's not really a selling point."
Job creation has been a selling point for CCA, local and federal officials.
"Beyond the detention professionals, you're also looking at a number of other professions: medical professionals, training professionals, food services professionals, chaplains. It's like a small city unto itself," CCA spokesman Steve Owen stated.
Up till now almost two-thirds of the anticipated 300 permanent jobs would be for guards.
"No one is going to want a job there. These are half million homes. People here earn $100,000 plus," stated Ryan Greenberg, whose home in the neighboring city of Pembroke Pines sits across the road from the projected site - closer than any home in Southwest Ranches itself.
At the Nov. 5 meeting with officials, residents echoed her sentiments. "We don't want your jobs!" they shouted.
What they did want was to know why their own officials had been evading them.
The CCA land wasn't included in maps published when the city was founded and the full city charter with the CCA lots isn't accessible on the city's website. It can only be found in the original resolution passed by state lawmakers in Tallahassee.
In January, days subsequent to the new year, town officials and CCA silently attempted to double the detention center space and enlarge to up to 2,200 beds with small public notice, finally deserting the plan following an outcry.
Southwest Ranches' City Attorney Keith Poliakoff pleaded officials in a June email to keep a "cone of silence" subsequent ICE's announcement regarding the tentative deal.
"I have been fully advised by our DC contacts that we should remain fully quiet on this one and to let our DC Leaders help without sparking a fire that will make it more difficult for them to assist," wrote Poliakoff, also a partner in one of the state's most influential lobbying firms.
Top Florida lawmakers in Washington like Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson have written letters to ICE in support of the detention center, though Wasserman-Shultz in recent weeks has also boosted more communication with the residents. According to town and CCA emails, Republican U.S. Sen.demanded to attend a D.C. meeting on the plan, but CCA demurred, stating it would bring too a lot attention. Rubio has not taken a position the proposal.
Temporarily, neighboring officials from Pembroke Pines have openly showed rage over the mysterious course while silently signing deals with the town not only assuring not to step in but also to furnish water service and fire protection.
Residents state they are waiting to see the final deal. They have fruitfully struggle far slighter development attempts, as well as plans for streetlamps and a toddler playground. They once even attempted to compensate another town to build low-cost housing before the state relaxed its requirements.
The Florida Immigrant Coalition, which organized the initial opposition efforts, lately insisted ICE halt plans until an environmental review is done on the impact of the nearby Everglades.
The alliance between the residents and activists hasn't been without tension. At the meeting with ICE officials, a militant who raised the subject of detainee treatment in private prisons was roundly booed.
However Southwest Ranches resident Bill Di Scipio stated those who support for immigrant rights and those in the community who desire more people deported, are united on this one.
"In the opposition to the prison, both sides of the immigration debate are represented," he stated.