Divided prospects: The fight over an immigration detention center

When a private prison company came to Evanston, Wyoming, local officials believed an economic revival was at hand. Instead, it unleashed a bitter debate.

There is a road leading out of Evanston, Wyoming, that is known as the Road to Nowhere. It runs through dry sagebrush bluffs along the edge of Bear River State Park, a green corridor through the rolling high desert just outside of town. Just under 12,000 people live in Evanston, which lies in Uinta County, near the state’s southwestern border. There is a small downtown surrounded by a smattering of residential streets lined with modest, single-family homes. Beyond that, on the windy and treeless outskirts of town, is a Walmart, chain restaurants and a few hotels. To the north, eighteen-wheelers rush by along Interstate 80 on their way to Salt Lake City, while to the south, Highway 150 leads to the Uinta Mountains, a blue smudge across the sky.

Evanston grew up alongside the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869 and became a thriving oil and gas town during the late 1970s and early ’80s. But by the mid-1980s, the boom began to sputter out, and many of the long-established businesses in downtown Evanston closed their doors, including Blyth & Fargo, one of the West’s first department stores, which had operated for 107 years. Over the next two decades, the town’s economy fluctuated as the price of oil rose and fell again and again. Since 2015, the last major oil downturn, Evanston’s economy has worsened; the average salary in Uinta County has been consistently $4,000 to $5,000 lower than the Wyoming average. Storefronts have boarded up, and oil workers have left for Texas. But those who remain love Evanston, with its slow pace and family-oriented feel, its homegrown celebrations like Cowboy Days and Cinco de Mayo, the “Fresh Air, Freedom and Fun” heralded in Evanston’s official slogan. They like the low taxes, the nearby mountains, and the fact that Evanston is not California. The town leans Republican, and the few Democrats are mostly moderate. It is a live-and-let-live kind of place, one longtime resident told me. “We all got along OK,” she said. “Or, we did.”


A few miles outside of Evanston, the Road to Nowhere ends in a patch of open land. An ambitious new facility was supposed to be built here and help lift Evanston out of its economic doldrums — a privately run detention center for immigrants awaiting deportation orders. In 2017, the Trump administration was ramping up immigration enforcement, and the government needed more detention centers to hold people arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. A private prison company called Management & Training Corporation (MTC) saw an opportunity in Evanston, a town in search of its next industry. The detention center, which would cost between $70 million and $90 million, would bring up to 200 full-time jobs, with correction officers’ entry level salaries starting at $42,000 per year, plus benefits.

For decades, the for-profit incarceration industry has found a welcome home in places like Evanston: rural communities looking for an economic boost. In the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. radically expanded the number of prisons — and prisoners — in the criminal justice system. After Sept. 11, 2001, that trend spread to the immigration enforcement system as well. From 2000 to 2016, the number of immigrants in U.S. detention rose 442% — and the growth has continued, with 40 new detention facilities opening since 2017, many of them in rural areas and most of them privately run.

“Industries that once supported them have abandoned them, and rural communities are often looking for a new industry that will solve everything.”

“These are places that have been left behind,” Tara Opsal, a researcher at Colorado State University who studies how prisons have shaped Western communities, told me. “Industries that once supported them have abandoned them, and rural communities are often looking for a new industry that will solve everything.”

Evanston, however, was different from the other towns that Opsal had studied. Here, the proposed detention center sparked an unexpectedly fierce debate around morality and the economy. Residents excited by the prospect of good jobs found themselves pitted against their neighbors, who were appalled that their town might become part of a system that detains asylum-seekers and separates migrant children from their parents.

The fight over the proposed detention center opened a window into the ideological and economic challenges facing rural America. What happens when a private prison company comes to a small, tight-knit community, promising salvation — and not everybody is willing to accept it?


The historic Blyth & Fargo department store building is visible from a neighborhood just off Evanston’s main drag.

IN 1979, JUST AS OIL COMPANIES were descending on southwestern Wyoming, an attorney named Tim Beppler moved to Evanston with his wife, Katie. Oil prices were soaring, leading companies to explore the Overthrust Belt, an area that stretches from Alaska to Mexico along the Rocky Mountains, but which had long been considered too difficult and expensive to drill. A few years before, a company named American Quasar had made the first significant discovery in Pineview, Utah, seven miles from the Wyoming border. By the time that Beppler moved to Evanston, eight major oil and gas fields had been found in southwestern Wyoming. The town became a hub for the surrounding fossil fuel industry, bringing an influx of oil workers followed by engineers, physicians, teachers and lawyers. Evanston’s population ballooned from 4,900 to over 13,000. Local resources were overwhelmed: Crime and alcohol abuse rose, schools were crowded, and when Beppler and his wife tried to buy a house in 1979, there were only two still available. They bought one of them.

But if the oil brought challenges to Evanston, it also brought new resources. Money provided by the energy companies to help mitigate the industry’s impacts funded new initiatives like the Uinta Arts Council and a recreation center. Community members attended public meetings, volunteering to help plan the new projects. “People were excited about the growth,” Beppler recalled.

Then, in 1986, oil prices collapsed. The Uinta County Economic Development Committee began looking for ways to rebuild the economy. Over the years, the town leaders tried to bring in new businesses and well-paying jobs, advertising in magazines and newspapers and hiring an outside consultant who recommended creating a website to attract new companies. Nothing worked out.

“Wyoming has been spoiled with our oil gas and coal industries just being so prevalent and so good for us.” 

“Wyoming has been spoiled with our oil gas and coal industries just being so prevalent and so good for us,” Mark Anderson, a Uinta County commissioner, told me. “That’s what we’ve relied on. We haven’t really ever had to diversify our economy.”

And so, when MTC appeared in early 2017 with a proposal to build a 500-bed facility that would house immigrants for ICE, local officials saw a quick fix. That spring, both the Evanston City Council and the Uinta County Commission issued resolutions in favor of the proposal before soliciting community input.

Kortney Clark and her children, Zoey, left, and Aryiah, right, at their home in Evanston home. Kortney helped organize opposition to the detention center, which would have been located near a park she and her daughters frequent.

Kortney Clark, a mother of two, has lived in Evanston for 20 years. When she learned about the proposed detention center, she balked at its suggested location: near Bear River State Park, where she likes to take her kids for walks. Others were upset over the secrecy surrounding the town and county’s decision to support the proposal, and some were skeptical that it would have lasting economic benefits.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Wyoming got involved, soliciting Antonio Serrano, a Cheyenne-based organizer, to help inform locals about the proposal and organize a campaign against it, based on the principle that detaining immigrants on non-criminal charges is wrong. In early 2018, Serrano launched WyoSayNo, a coalition of immigrants’ rights groups across the state, to fight the detention center, organizing protests, writing petitions and filing public records requests.

Clark knew almost nothing about the U.S. immigration system, but she learned quickly. A few months before, news had broken that the Trump administration was separating migrant children from their parents at the border. As Clark read about ICE detention centers and how parents were often held there for weeks or months at a time and then deported, without their children, the prospect that her town might become even a small part of that system horrified her — all the more so because of her own work as a health-care case manager, helping children with special needs to stay at home with their families. “My job is keeping families together,” she told me.

Project supporters, on the other hand, were motivated by the promise of new jobs and economic growth and security. Critics were also worried about the message a detention center would send to Evanston’s Latino and immigrant community, which makes up around 10% of the town. Many of Trump’s immigration policies, especially family separation, have been widely condemned for their cruelty — even by members of his own party. “There was a real sense of this (detention center) as an example of Evanston taking an incorrect moral position,” Opsal, the CSU researcher, told me.

Public meetings about the detention center grew increasingly tense, pitting those in favor of the facility against those who opposed it. It was hard to tell which group was larger, Beppler told me, but he was struck by how many people were vocalizing their concerns, even though they seemed to have little effect on local officials, who remained eager to pursue the proposal. For the Bepplers, the most distressing part of the issue was how bitterly it divided the community. In the past, Evanstonians had come together over their problems to discuss alternatives and come up with solutions. When the town needed a recycling center, for example, a few locals started Uinta Recycling Inc., a nonprofit run mostly by volunteers, in 2004. But the detention center brought out a different response. The two sides became hyper-polarized, Beppler said. “It was an us-against-them situation.”

Evanston, Wyoming, where the historic Railroad Roundhouse (curved building, center), built by Union Pacific Railroad in the early 1900s, still anchors the town.

BY LATE FALL 2018, the growing opposition to the proposed detention center started to concern MTC and the county commissioners, who began looking for ways to drum up more local support. Mike Murphy, the vice president of marketing for MTC, sent an email to Amanda Hutchinson, the Uinta County clerk. “We are looking for 3-4 individuals in Evanston to sign onto some editorials we want to publish supporting the ICE facility in Uinta County,” he wrote, in an email obtained by a WyoSayNo public records request.

Despite the opposition, the plan appeared to be moving ahead. In July 2019, the federal government requested proposals from contractors for a 250-to-500-bed immigrant detention center. Uinta County anticipated that MTC would respond by confirming Evanston as the proposed location. Instead, in July 2019, MTC abruptly abandoned its proposal, telling county commissioners that it was a business decision. Soon after, CoreCivic, a private prison company, offered to take over, expanding the proposed detention center’s capacity from 500 to 1,000 beds.

Mark Anderson, who was elected to the Uinta County Commission in January 2019, had to decide whether or not to support CoreCivic’s plan. Immigrant detention is a controversial subject, and for-profit ICE detention centers have come under fire for inadequate medical care, lack of access to lawyers, abusive conditions and suicides. A recent report from the House Homeland Security Committee criticized ICE’s oversight mechanisms and medical treatment of detainees. The report, based on a yearlong review by the committee’s members and investigators, came to the conclusion that “ICE prioritizes obtaining bed space over the wellbeing of detainees.”

Mark Anderson, a Uinta County commissioner, was in favor of the detention center and the economic benefits it would have brought Evanston.

So, before he made up his mind, Anderson decided to tour one of CoreCivic’s facilities. He visited the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego and told me he was impressed by the level of oversight he found there. “You read a lot of stuff in articles,” he told me. “Every negative little thing — a lot of that is maybe not as truthful as what I saw.”

Anderson also reached out to other counties across the country that had had CoreCivic facilities in their communities for many years. “I made dozens and dozens of calls,” he told me. No one had anything negative to say about the company, he said, adding that even some of the public officials he talked to who were “liberal-minded” on immigration told him — to his surprise — that CoreCivic had had a positive economic impact in their communities.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, considering that small-town budgets are often heavily reliant on private prisons and detention centers, not to mention the administrative fees and other perks that private companies offer to win over local governments. Chronic underinvestment in rural communities means that towns are “kind of held hostage by these private prison corporations,” Bárbara Suarez Galeano, the organizing director at Detention Watch Network, a nonprofit that advocates against immigration detention, told me.

People in Evanston continued to debate the merits of CoreCivic’s proposal. But Anderson felt like he had heard from enough of his constituents to be able to support it himself. “People reached out to me all the time,” he said. “It’s a small town.” Some locals hesitated to support it publicly, telling Anderson privately, “I hope it happens.” Anderson began to feel like opponents were less interested in the local issues than in trying to convince him that immigrant detention was entirely wrong, whether it happened here or anywhere else.

“ICE prioritizes obtaining bed space over the wellbeing of detainees.”

Faced with increasingly vocal opponents, supporters began to organize their own campaign. In November 2019, a local man named Jonny Pentz started a Facebook group called Uinta County Say Yes! At a public meeting last December, representatives from CoreCivic presented the plans for the detention center. An artist’s rendering showed a 300,000-square-foot facility sitting on a bluff next to Bear River State Park, surrounded by multiple layers of razor-wire fencing and 16-foot-high walls. The meeting was packed, and people had two minutes to ask questions or share their opinions. When Pentz spoke, he said that he would be the first to apply for a job at the future detention center. “There is more local support for you than is being reported,” he said. Beppler, who also attended, came away less certain. “I think that if nothing else, (the meeting) drove home that the community was not of one mind on this issue,” he told me.

The proposal moved ahead anyway. In January, the county commissioners voted unanimously to pass a land-transfer resolution authorizing the county to sell 63 acres near Bear River State Park to CoreCivic for $315,000.

And then it all came crashing down — again. This spring, CoreCivic became the second company to walk away from Evanston in less than a year. The abrupt cancellation hit local officials hard. “It’s off the table now,” Eric South, the chairman of the Uinta County Commission, told the Casper Star-Tribune on April 8. “All these bleeding hearts and liberals ought to be happy about it.”

“There’s no jobs, no opportunities. And when we speak up and say what we want, we have reporters all over Wyoming coming here and writing stuff down about us and calling us racists.” 

CoreCivic would not agree to an interview about its decision. In a statement, a spokesperson for the company wrote, “There were ultimately a number of factors that made it difficult for us to consider proceeding.”

Although CoreCivic had left Evanston, the tension sowed by the proposal lingered. In August, I made plans to visit Evanston, and Clark reached out to Pentz on my behalf, saying that I was interested in talking to both supporters and opponents. The day before I was supposed to go, however, Clark told me that Pentz had posted on the “Uinta County Say Yes!” Facebook page, describing me, falsely, as “a supporter of the antifa movement” — an ideology associated with a loose group of antifascists who sometimes stir up chaos and are not opposed to violence. Throughout the summer, rumors circulated on social media that antifa organizers were coming to rural towns, and Pentz, who was then running for the Evanston City Council, warned people not to speak to me.

I called Pentz, hoping to clear things up. “A few people tried to figure out what you’re trying to do here,” he said. Pentz explained that he felt that everything was political, and added that he and those on “his side” had suffered for supporting the detention center. “We’re just a bunch of people who are literally suffering because our oil fields are dying,” Pentz told me. “There’s no jobs, no opportunities. And when we speak up and say what we want, we have reporters all over Wyoming coming here and writing stuff down about us and calling us racists.” We spoke for about 10 minutes before Pentz ended the call.

The sagebrush slope that was set to be the site of the privately run ICE detention center. The location is about a mile east of downtown Evanston, and just above Bear River State Park.

ELSEWHERE IN THE WESTERN UNITED STATES, proposed immigration detention centers have stirred up passionate battles in local communities, many of them already home to prisons and ICE facilities. In McFarland, California, a cash-strapped town in the Central Valley, a proposal to convert two state prisons into an ICE detention center managed by a private company called The GEO Group sparked months of protests and contentious public meetings. When the city’s planning commission voted on the proposal last February, the result was a tie, which meant the motion failed. But The GEO Group appealed to the city council, which approved the proposal in April. (This summer, following a lawsuit that accused the city of illegally approving permits for GEO, a federal judge ordered a halt to the approval.)

Since the early 1990s, Adelanto, another struggling town in California’s Mojave Desert, has embraced incarceration facilities as an economic development strategy. It has three within the city limits, two of them privately owned by The GEO Group. In 2016, the company paid the town $960,000 a year in taxes — an eighth of Adelanto’s budget, but pocket change compared to the nearly $2.2 billion that the company brought in from all of its contracts that year. “We need the money in the city,” Adelanto’s former mayor had told me.

“We need the money in the city.”

In February, the Adelanto Planning Commission approved The GEO Group’s plan to convert its state prison into an immigration detention center. Jessie Flores, the city manager, cited the approximately $1 million the company pays the city for operating its prisons — about 10% of the city’s revenue. Immigrants’ rights groups appealed the decision, putting the proposal’s fate in the hands of the city council. More than 1,600 people emailed the city before a vote in September that kept locals in a meeting past 3 a.m. The vote ended up deadlocked, 2-2, meaning that the earlier ruling by the Planning Commission stood, and GEO can move forward with the expansion. Once again, opponents vowed to fight.

All these local conflicts are now caught up in the reality of the pandemic, as surging COVID-19 infection rates have forced ICE to decrease the number of detainees it holds. Meanwhile, the state and the federal government are fighting over immigration detention in California. Last year, ICE signed a 15-year contract with The GEO Group for the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, which included the company’s proposed expansion — less than two weeks before California passed a new state law to phase out private prisons and detention centers.

Signs and billboards line Harrison Drive on the west side of Evanston, Wyoming. Harrison connects to Interstate 80, heading toward Salt Lake City to the west and Rock Springs to the east.

A FEW DAYS AFTER I spoke to Pentz on the phone, I visited Evanston. I was a bit wary of what I might encounter — one of the commenters on Pentz’s Facebook post about me wrote: “I say we all get our guns on and stand together.” The evening I arrived, however, was peaceful. In a park near the old train station, a small group of people had gathered for an outdoor concert. I had hoped to talk to others who had supported the detention center, but Pentz’s warnings had circulated. When I called the county commission’s office to talk to some of the commissioners, the clerk asked if I was “the reporter writing about the ICE detention center.” Most of my calls went unanswered.

I wandered around the downtown, which is lined with historic brick buildings that give it an old-timey charm. The Blyth & Fargo building is still there, but now it hosts a vape shop and a tattoo parlor, among other businesses. Across the street, a colorful ice cream store called The Scoop stood empty, the sign still beckoning even though the shop had closed a few years ago. Main Street was mostly deserted, but pop music played from speakers attached to the streetlights.

There was good news on the horizon: A rubber glove and boot manufacturer had recently made plans to relocate from the Pacific Northwest to Evanston. And an existing beauty care company was expanding to make hand sanitizer — a much-coveted product during an ongoing pandemic. Above the entrance to the newly renovated Evanston Cultural Center, flashing green lettering read: “Come to Downtown!”

But, despite the good news, the tension between neighbors had not dissipated. I met Clark outside her house in a subdivision. She has short brown hair and spoke softly, her tone matter-of-fact even when discussing the recent conflict with Pentz. Like Beppler, Clark had been taken aback by the level of acrimony that had flourished in Evanston. “I understand that people need jobs,” she said. Her husband, who works as a diesel mechanic, commutes an hour to Park City, Utah. In the past, they had discussed moving closer to his job, but they couldn’t afford it, she said. Still, she thought, if people did more research about why immigrants are undocumented and how hard it is to obtain legal status, they might reconsider their support for the detention center. “I think not really knowing and understanding is the reason why they thought it was OK to bring that (the detention center) here,” she told me.

In the end, the detention center had crystallized the hidden differences among people in a generally tight-knit community — over immigration, over politics, over the future of their town — obscuring what they still had in common: the desire for better opportunities in Evanston.

The proposal had also stirred up disturbing memories: Evanston had compromised its integrity over economic concerns before. More than a century ago, Chinese immigrants were brought into the U.S. and then to Wyoming to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. When the project was finished, thousands of jobs disappeared, and white workers grew resentful of the Chinese who remained, convinced they were taking their jobs for lower wages. One morning in September 1885, a fight broke out between white miners and their Chinese coworkers in nearby Rock Springs, ending in a riot and the massacre of 28 Chinese. In Evanston, armed mobs threatened more violence, and white residents petitioned the Wyoming governor to pay off the Chinese workers so they would have enough money to leave town.

The detention center felt like an unsettling echo of that history — a time when the town was caught up in anti-immigrant sentiments and policies.

For Tim Beppler, the detention center felt like an unsettling echo of that history — a time when the town was caught up in anti-immigrant sentiments and policies. In the end, the railroad era ended, just like the oil rush that followed. In 2018, and then again in 2019, Beppler wrote a letter to the county commissioners. “Please don’t let this sad history repeat itself,” he said, referring to the often-forgotten history of Evanston’s Chinese community. He could have been talking about the people and communities most affected by any boom-and-bust industry, whether it’s oil or prisons. Beppler concluded with a question and a warning: “What will we do,” he wrote, “when the national immigration policies change again in a few years?”   

An abandoned building in Evanston’s rail yard, where the Transcontinental Railway — and an ensuing boom — came through in 1869.

This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for High Country News. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado. 

Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor


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