A Commitment to Racial Justice Helps Stop a Detention Center in Rural MN

The Land Stewardship Project’s mission is to foster an ethic of stewardship of farmland, to promote sustainable agriculture and to develop healthy communities. LSP believes that private, for-profit immigration detention centers have no place in Minnesota. When we became aware that there was a proposal being considered in Pine Island, Minn., a group of concerned LSP members met at the Lewiston, Minn., office. Using LSP’s economic racial justice statement as a guide, LSP members agreed that our role was to let the NO ICE in Pine Island group take the lead while supporting them in opposing the detention center. LSP member Dan Wilson agreed to attend the NO ICE in Pine Island meeting and provided a connection between that group and LSP. Resulting from this connection, LSP sent a letter to the Pine Island City Council urging it to withdraw its resolution that supported the detention center. We let LSP members know about the situation and urged them to attend a City Council meeting where the issue was being discussed. The following blog, written by Wilson, describes his experience.

On July 23, I sat on the back porch of a house in Pine Island and was reminded why grassroots organizations are so exciting. I had heard about a proposed immigration detention center in Pine Island at a meeting LSP had invited members to. Two dozen of us sat in the Lewiston office sharing what we had learned from other groups working on blocking immigration centers from around the state. One question kept coming up: “Who do we know in Pine Island?” Since no one from the town had shown up to the meeting, I decided to go to them and tell them what LSP and other groups were willing to do to follow their lead and help their community.

Sitting on that back porch in Pine Island, we went around and said our names, where we were from, and why we were here. The woman next to me gave her first name, pointed down the road and said, “Two blocks down that way.” She then expressed outrage that the Pine Island City Council had passed a resolution encouraging Management and Training Corp. (MTC) to build an immigrant detention center within the city limits. Other people gave the cross streets they were close to and expressed confusion over how a 350-bed facility imprisoning immigrant neighbors could attract new families. Others wondered out loud how folks could profit off the misery of immigrant detainees.

When the circle ended with me, I explained that I lived and farmed south of Winona and that I came as a part of a broader coalition across the state to oppose any immigration detention center. I had become involved in this work because I had spent two years in Tucson providing humanitarian aid on the U.S./Mexico border and assisting families seeking asylum. I had visited immigrant detention centers in small towns outside of Tucson. They consisted of razor wire surrounding the perimeter filled with despondent fathers, brothers, mothers and daughters waiting in orange jumpsuits to be deported to dangerous countries.

More importantly, I explained, a detention center anywhere in southeastern Minnesota would make it easier for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to stage raids in surrounding communities. It would also encourage the surrounding sheriffs to arrest more immigrants that live in their counties so that they can be eventually placed under the ICE detainer system. This would negatively impact area farmers, dairy workers and small businesses.

As the conversation worked its way through putting together facts about how the resolution came to be approved, folks started to figure out how they could respond and have a voice in the future of their community. Through work that LSP is doing related to another proposed detention center near Appleton Minn., people from that community were able to share facts and stories of how they are working to stop that facility. With some of this information, the Pine Island group created a fact sheet outlining how MTC had left other small communities in debt with their facilities, how detention centers generally suppress rural economies, and how they routinely violate immigrants' human rights.

Over the next month, the group met with City Council members, had conversations with neighbors and friends, and wrote letters-to-the- editor. The next time they had a meeting, two weeks before the August City Council meeting, there were a dozen new people there. LSP, along with several other Minnesota groups, had written a letter to Pine City Mayor Rod Steele opposing the detention center.

On August 21, over 80 people filled the small chambers of the City Council with signs and small red heart stickers declaring their opposition to the detention center. The Council then begrudgingly decided to rescind their support for the detention center. The potential for change from a small, dedicated group of people is enough to make a room feel electric. It was that energy that I felt the first night I went to Pine Island in July and on the hot night in August when the City Council finally listened to what its citizens wanted.

However, the City Council took a common approach to when there is a sudden surge of resistance. It has kicked the can down the road, saying that a detention center isn’t right for Pine Island—“right now.” The residents have written a resolution banning any detention centers now or in the future, and hope to bring it to the City Council this month. This is when we will see whether or not the City Council actually has the interest of its citizens in mind.

Dan Wilson farms near Rushford, Minn. To read more about why actions like opposing detention centers in Minnesota are important to creating a just food and agricultural system, and why the Land Stewardship Project is involved, click here.