Why One Trump County Rejected an Immigration-Detention Facility

February 2, 2018 | Wall Street Journal | Link to Story

In Elkhart County, Ind., many workers at Lippert Components, Inc., which makes vehicle parts, are Latino, one reason the company’s owner opposed an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility for the area. PHOTO: JOSHUA LOTT/REUTERS

GOSHEN, Ind.—Private-prison company CoreCivic met in January with about 20 local business leaders and elected officials to discuss its plan to build a $100 million immigration-detention facility in Elkhart County.

The response? An overwhelming thumbs-down.

The business executives, many in the RV industry, worried about the signal that would be sent to their heavily Latino workforce by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement prison. The area also faces a worker shortage, and community leaders were concerned about anything that might drive away prospective employees—Latino or otherwise—or deter people from moving there.

“We said, ‘we don’t want you here’,” said Jason Lippert, chief executive of Lippert Components Inc., which makes fenders, windows and other RV parts in local factories. “We were very vocal about that.”

A few days later, the Nashville, Tenn.-based CoreCivic, withdrew its application. “We have been assessing whether the Elkhart community would be a good fit for this project,” said a spokesman for the company. “Our assessment has led us to this decision.”

The Trump administration, which has stepped up arrests of those living illegally in the U.S., has asked Congress for $1.2 billion that could pay for more capacity for ICE’s detention facilities, according to an ICE spokeswoman. The Department of Homeland Security is looking at building detention centers in the Chicago, Detroit, St. Paul and Salt Lake City areas. A spokeswoman declined to comment on community reaction to proposed facilities.

Jason Lippert, chief executive of Lippert Components said he worried about the impact of the proposed ICE facility on his Latino employees.
Jason Lippert, chief executive of Lippert Components said he worried about the impact of the proposed ICE facility on his Latino employees. PHOTO: SHAYNDI RAICE/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Elkhart County voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump, but even as many people continue to back him, they don’t want the ICE facility.

Mr. Lippert, who said he supports Mr. Trump’s “business-friendly policies,” said he was concerned about holding on to workers. About 3,000 of his 10,000 employees are Latino, and Goshen—one of the county’s principal cities—is 30% Latino.

When news about the CoreCivic project made its way through town, his employees came to management asking what it might mean for them. “They’re thinking the worst,” he said. “That just drives fear and uncertainty and it might drive some people from the area.”


Jaqui Torres, a 19-year-old student at Goshen College, moved from Mexico with her parents when she was 1. She is a DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, recipient, and her father and brother work at Lippert Components. When she heard about the ICE facility, she said she “felt like people don’t want us here.”

Like many small American cities, Goshen is struggling to attract workers even as it works to improve the local quality of life, using state funding to rehabilitate an old theater and build a multipurpose pavilion and ice rink. While the private prison would have created an estimated 300 jobs, Mayor Jeremy Stutsman, a Democrat, wrote on the city website that it would “create jobs we don’t need at wages we don’t want.” He said additional tax dollars wouldn’t offset damage to the county “both in terms of perception and in terms of creating an unwanted unwelcoming reputation.”

About 45 local community leaders, including CEOs present at the January meeting with CoreCivic, signed the letter.

“It’s important not to confuse immigration policy with a detention center,” said Levon Johnson, president and chief executive of the Greater Elkhart Chamber of Commerce. “I think policy and having the detention center, while they clearly go together, they’re two separate things.”

Elsewhere, Evanston, Wyo. has also seen protests against a proposed ICE detention facility that would serve the Salt Lake City area, although officials approved the project because of the jobs it will bring. In Jerome County, Idaho, some community members protested a proposed bed-rental contract between ICE and the local jail, while others supported the idea because of the potential revenue.

Elkhart County, with a population of about 200,000, has long hitched its fortunes to the recreational-vehicle and motor-home industry. Tied tightly to disposable income, the RV industry has been prone to booms and busts. In April of 2009, nearly 20% of the residents of the greater Elkhart area were without jobs. In November, unemployment was 2.4%.

Mike Yoder, president of the county board of commissioners and a Republican who said he had concerns about the CoreCivic proposal, said the area needs “people for our companies to employ, we need people to build homes for the families that we need to move to our community.”

In Elkhart County, there are 9,500 jobs openings, according to Work One Northern Indiana, a state employment agency. On signs dotting the streets, RV factories, fast-food restaurants and hospitals advertise “immediate employment,” “nurses wanted,” “taking applications for welders for 1st and 2nd shift,” and urging workers to “apply within.”