Longform

Prisonville, Florida: Low Taxes and Big Yards, All for the Price of a Box Full of Immigrants

There's a town next to the Everglades, 30 minutes up the expressway from Miami. It's a strange, meandering place occupying ten square miles of homes, horse meadows, and pine trees. Except for part of a big-box mall that falls within its borders, there are no shops. There's no road department or police department, no department store.

But if everything goes according to plan, the 7,400-resident town will soon be home to 1,400 immigrants in a new federal detention center run by a private corporation.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has tentatively approved the plan, but the road of negotiations that led here is as long as one of the town's quiet, unlit streets. It began a dozen years ago, when the town was formed and a prison looked like a brilliant source of tax revenue.

Or maybe it began before that, when developer-king Ron Bergeron sold a spot of forsaken land to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). Or even before that, when man pushed westward into the swamp, past sprawling homesteads and retention ponds, to a place where he could hide such things as prisons.

Immigration policy can be an abstract issue, but the mechanics need to take place somewhere. Four hundred thousand people a year are rounded up and shipped out of the country on buses or unmarked white jets, repatriated to an even more broken place. On the way, there's paperwork to be done and an average wait time of 28 days, during which the immigrants remain for "processing" in U.S. government custody. But where to put them?

You need three things: a plot of land, a company willing to build a prison, and a local government willing to bend over backward to persuade the feds to hold their captives there.

Add in some residents enticed by the promise that their corporate neighbor, left to do its unpleasant business, could help keep their taxes low forever.

Bienvenidos a Southwest Ranches.

Here is a usual Thursday-night Town Council meeting last year: A couple of dozen people fill a town hall made from doublewide trailers on rented land. Five council members greet residents and take their seats. The Town Council includes Freddy Fisikelli, an 80-year-old cattle farmer who was here from the beginning. He has seen the town through budget crises, corruption, and infighting. Now he's keeping quiet on contentious issues.

There's the group of homeowners' association officials clustered around the back table, talking among themselves about gossip or a flooded lot, same as it ever was.

That's Lee Rosselli by the door: a standup guy, a sheriff's deputy who's about to retire. He's been here forever, and everybody has a story about him. He's been known to help round up cows or tow a tractor in a pinch.

But one night last October, the scene was different. A new element was in play, one that could forever change the way business is done here. Deputy Rosselli was more agitated than usual. Instead of chatting, he stood outside the doors. He was refusing to let anybody in — fire code, he said. Too many people.

Out in the parking lot, TV news vans rumbled, their cameras providing the brightest lights around. Cars continued to overflow the parking lot, spilling onto the grass. People got out, carrying signs written in Sharpie on neon boards. They were speaking intensely, some in Spanish, as they formed a procession down the driveway.

The man with a megaphone, standing on the grass with a determined look on his face, was Bill Di Scipio. He wasn't a member of the immigrant-rights coalition that helped him organize the protest, and he certainly wasn't one of the longtime Ranches homeowners. He'd started out as a curious citizen, relatively new to the place, looking for answers about the big detention center supposedly moving in next door.

He was met with silence from the Town Council. A few weeks before the protest, he had dared to ask why.

Fisikelli, the old farmer, turned to the town attorney, Keith Poliakoff.

"Keith, explain to him why we're doing the 'cone of silence,' " Fisikelli said.

"We've been asked by Homeland Security and CCA," Poliakoff answered.

That was all Di Scipio needed to hear: A federal agency and a private corporation were putting the gag on his elected officials. This was the perceived injustice that spurred Di Scipio to start a long public-records fight with the town and organize several protests. He would push its usually friendly leaders further into nervous silence. Poliakoff would become his enemy.

This new guy in town, with his accusations and curiosity, disrupted a cardinal rule of Southwest Ranches: Live and let live. He stirred up a system that had been accustomed to operating undisturbed. And amid his finger-pointing and name-calling, some of his neighbors realized — belatedly — that along with their low-tax land, they had purchased a share in the prison business.


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Stefan Kamph
Contact: Stefan Kamph