In crossing the road, ICE causes a stir

By Andrew Jenner

This article was updated at 7:45pm on Friday with comments from Harrisonburg Vice Mayor Sal Romero and to correct the date of when a building permit application was filed.

According to their landlord, the local Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office wanted a layout reconfiguration that wasn’t possible in their current building at 263 Neff Avenue. By moving across the street to a former paint store at 282 Neff Avenue, ICE is getting that new layout – and lots of scrutiny from community members who say the agency should “have no place in the Friendly City.”

Concern over ICE’s plans arose after a building permit application was filed last month with the city to renovate 282 Neff Avenue for Government Service Agency (GSA) office use. Activists with a newly organized group, Friends United for Equity and Grassroots Organizing – FUEGO – said they became aware of the building permit application after filing a recent FOIA request with the city.

The GSA, which leases property on behalf of federal agencies, confirmed that it had agreed to rent the building at 282 Neff Avenue on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a part.

On Thursday, FUEGO released a statement on Facebook calling on supporters to ask the contractor and architect renovating the new ICE office to quit working on the project. The group is organizing a gathering outside the facility at 4pm on Sunday, May 12,  to raise community awareness about the project.

“Any institution that works with ICE in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County is complicit in ICE attacks on immigrant families and children in our community, at the border, and in detention centers across the county,” says Boris Ozuna, an event organizer, in the press release. “ICE has a well-documented track record of human rights abuses, and they have no place in a community that calls itself friendly and welcoming.”

By early Friday morning, more than 270 people had signed a “De-ICE the Valley” petition circulated with the FUEGO statement.

“All it is is moving across the street,” said Bill Neff, who owns the property currently used as the local ICE office as well as the one across the street the agency plans to move into. “They’ve been in the same place for 15 years.”

“Everything else is the same, no more people, no more nothing. The same people are going to work there,” said Neff. “It hasn’t caused anybody any problems.”

He said the renovation of the new building should be finished soon.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson confirmed that ICE plans to move its Harrisonburg office across the street. The annual rent for the current ICE office at 263 Neff Avenue is $113,720, according to information published on the GSA website.

The building now being renovated for ICE is almost 50 percent larger than the current one, a fact that is also of concern to FUEGO.

“The construction of this facility expands ICE’s hold in our community and increases their capacity to target our community members with raids, detention, and deportation, an alarming prospect given our jail’s ongoing collaboration with ICE vis-a-vis detainers,” said Julia Davis, another FUEGO member, in the press release.

Upon learning about the renovations at 282 Neff Avenue for ICE offices through social media, Harrisonburg Vice Mayor Sal Romero said, he asked city staff to brief him on the matter. In a statement released Friday evening, Romero said he personally reviewed the proposed floor plan, and that while the total size of the office will increase, the new facility will have the same number of holding cells – three – as the current office. The statement also noted that the proposed governmental use is permitted by-right in the B-2 zoning district.

“As a resident of the city and a first-generation immigrant, I share great concern for ICE having a presence in our city and recognize the level of fear and insecurity that ICE brings to many of our neighbors in the community,” Romero said in the statement. “As a member of City Council, I am committed to remaining in close communication with the City Manager’s office in order to disseminate accurate information, and to ensure transparency about the role of the City in these developments. If members of the community have any additional information about the building permit request, I welcome hearing from them.”

Records compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), an organization based at Syracuse University that tracks and publishes data on federal law enforcement, show that ICE made 195 arrests in Rockingham County or “closely surrounding areas” between October 2014 and May 2018.  The City of Harrisonburg does not appear separately in TRAC data, which is compiled through the use of Freedom of Information Act requests, and more recent data is not yet available.

Over that same time period, ICE made 8,915 arrests across Virginia, according to TRAC.

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