JEROME — Hundreds of people from throughout south-central Idaho came to the Jerome County Courthouse Monday to protest plans to lease space in the county jail to hold immigration suspects.
Holding handmade signs opposing a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement — some of them made puns on the agency’s acronym ICE or had pictures of crossed-out ice cubes on them — the protesters marched a couple of blocks down North Lincoln Avenue to the courthouse and rallied and chanted outside, just before an hour-long public hearing commissioners held to get feedback on the proposal.
Anticipating a crowd, the hearing was held in the courtroom rather than the county commissioners’ regular meeting room, but even this wasn’t enough space — even after the jury box was opened for people to sit, every seat was still full, so protesters lined the walls of the courtroom while more waited outside in the hallway and stairwell. The rally continued on the courthouse steps and lawn after the hearing, with the people who had been inside joining even more people who had been outside.
All but two of the 20 people who spoke opposed the contract. Many of them talked about the economic impact Hispanic people, including undocumented immigrants, have in Jerome and said an ICE presence in Jerome would spread fear in the Hispanic community.
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“Even the undocumented pay taxes,” said Maria Bucklew, who publishes the local bilingual magazine “NCulturas” and whose parents brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was 14. “They work 12-hour shifts, six days a week, even when they are sick. We are part of the community.”
The contract is being negotiated between the sheriff’s office and ICE, and commissioners haven’t yet seen a draft of it. Commissioner Charlie Howell said after the meeting he tentatively expects the commissioners to meet with someone from ICE next week and hopes to have a draft contract a week after that. Sheriff Doug McFall said in June the talks have been about leasing ICE 50 beds at $75 each per day, which could bring in up to $1.37 million a year.
Jerry Holton said he voted against building the new jail, but now that it has been built with more space than the county needs, the county should lease out the beds, and the deal with ICE makes business sense.
“We need to make money,” he said. “That jail is built. It’s coming out of my taxes, my houses.”
Janet Freeman also said she favors the contract.
“People and the media are feeding on fear of ICE instead of allowing ICE to do their jobs and enforce the laws of the United States of America,” she said.
Freeman said she lives across the street from a big dairy, and said the dairy’s owner bought two formerly single-family homes across the street from her a few years ago and now uses them to house several families each. The crowd started to jeer Freeman as she complained about the men who live there, saying they drink and party and play their music loud late at night and haven’t listened when she has asked them to stop.
Larry Laub said he voted for the jail, but that he expected the beds to be leased to other counties, not to ICE. He defended undocumented immigrants and said “this needs to be an educated decision. Not one based on feeling or because your neighbor partied too loud.”
“Just because they don’t speak English does not mean they’re not human beings with families to support,” Laub said.
Jerome County is about 35 percent Hispanic, the second-most Hispanic county in Idaho, and about half were born abroad according to a report the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs released earlier this year. A significant percentage are believed to be undocumented — according to the Pew Research Center’s estimates about 42 percent of foreign-born Idahoans are.
Speaking in Spanish with an interpreter who translated her remarks for the non-Spanish speakers in the crowd, Araceli Garcia described the difficult jobs she has done, and said her husband works 12-hour shifts at a dairy now.
“I don’t steal,” she said. “I don’t kill. I don’t take anything from anyone.”
Garcia questioned whether anyone who is living here legally would do those jobs.
“We work, we pay rent, and tell me, if you guys do the contract with ICE ... who’s going to work in the dairies?” she asked. “Who’s going to collect the rock if nobody else wants to do it?”
Farm owner Michael Johnson said it would be wrong to ignore “the racist and divisive statements of the current administration under which ICE operates,” predicting the contract would lead to a gradual increase in people in Jerome being arrested by ICE.
President Donald Trump, who got almost 70 percent of the vote in Jerome County, ran on a platform of more restrictive immigration policies and stricter enforcement of immigration laws. Several people who spoke pointed to a February memo in which ICE officers were directed to take action against any removable aliens they encounter, a change from Obama administration policies that targeted those with criminal records.
“I believe the agricultural community will be affected by this contract,” Johnson said.