willacy, border
Protesters outside the Willacy County courthouse. (Gus Bova)

Despite Protests, Willacy County Forges Ahead with Resurrection of Notorious Immigrant Detention Center

The South Texas county is working to finalize an agreement with ICE and a private prison company to revive a 1,000-bed immigrant detention facility.


About 50 activists showed up Friday in the tiny South Texas town of Raymondville to protest the resurrection of the controversial immigrant detention facility once known as “Ritmo.” The protesters held signs outside of the Willacy County courthouse and chanted “ICE, out of our communities” and “no more detention centers,” as the county commissioners court debated reviving the troubled detention facility.

“What immigrants need is asylum and protection, not incarceration,” said Ramona Casas, a community organizer with ARISE, an advocacy group in the Rio Grande Valley. Supporters, including Willacy County Judge Aurelio Guerra, have said the detention center would boost the local economy. Asked about the economic benefit to the impoverished town of Raymondville, Casas, who lives in neighboring Hidalgo County, replied: “There are many good sources of work other than a center for oppression.”

Ramona Casas outside the Willacy County courthouse  Gus Bova

During a public comment period, three demonstrators echoed those same points, and one held a sign reading “Never again! Keep Ritmo closed.” But on a 4-0 vote, the commissioners court moved forward with a three-way agreement to reopen the facility.

The arrangement, involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Willacy County and private prison operator, MTC, was tentatively approved on June 25, but the parties have since continued to fiddle with the details. The county has refused to release the contract, and Guerra declined to explain some terms of the agreement, such as how much MTC will be paid or when the facility might open.

On Friday, the commissioners court passed a minor amendment stipulating that the county will withhold payment from MTC until certain contractual obligations have been met. Guerra declined to explain the amendment to reporters.

The next step is for MTC to accept the change, at which point the deal could be finalized, according to Guerra. The facility is a 1,000-bed center that will hold adult ICE detainees facing civil removal proceedings.

Willacy County Detention Center
Willacy County Detention Center  ACLU

The facility used to sit alongside 10 large Kevlar-covered domes as part of the Willacy County Correctional Center, a detention center nicknamed “Tent City” or “Ritmo.” Conditions at the center were so bad that in 2015 detainees rioted and nearly burned the place down, doing so much damage the facility was forced to close it down. The county even sued the company for mismanagement.

That history is why activists, mostly from nearby Rio Grande Valley towns and cities, packed the normally sleepy courthouse Friday. The makeup of the crowd wasn’t lost on the county judge.

“I have not had a single constituent come to me and tell me, since February 2015, when the riot happened, to not consider reopening it. It’s the opposite: ‘When is it gonna open? We need the jobs,” Guerra told reporters Friday. “If you have individuals out there from the community that are saying that, then interview them.”

Willacy County Judge Aurelio Guerra.  Gus Bova

Guerra said he wasn’t worried about another scandal, despite MTC’s track record. He said the risks “would be the same” as any other detention center in the country, and claimed that it was the feds’ responsibility to vet MTC.

County Commissioner Eliberto Guerra also told the Observer he wasn’t worried about another riot because, unlike in 2015, the facility would be holding civil immigrant detainees instead of immigrants serving criminal sentences.

Guerra emphasized the need for the prison guard jobs in Raymondville. Willacy County, population 22,000, has a poverty rate of 38 percent. He added that the county stands to earn as much as $930,000 a year in administrative fees from the contract, plus additional taxes.

But critics weren’t convinced. Norma Herrera, criminal justice organizer for the Austin-based nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, told the commissioners during public comment that MTC had already proven itself unable to provide “sustainable jobs.” During its nine years in Willacy County, MTC was effectively shut down on two occasions for alleged mismanagement.

An MTC spokesperson told the Observer he could not confirm when the contract will be complete, and said in a previous statement that the company always provided quality conditions.