U.S. immigration authorities are potentially interested in developing a detention center in Utah for immigrants facing deportation, and Weber County Sheriff Ryan Arbon thinks a vacant jail in Ogden might be a solid candidate.

Arbon said his office has been in back-and-forth communication with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, officials on the issue and that federal representatives even visited Ogden to look at the Kiesel facility, located next door to the Ogden Municipal Building in the heart of the city. The structure, now largely vacant, was built in 1983 and used to serve as the Weber County Jail before the completion in 2000 of the current jail at 1400 Depot Road.

"Our Kiesel jail has to pass an inspection by them to move forward," said Arbon, who traveled to the Arizona-Mexico border in May to get a better understanding of the surge in immigrants seeking entry into the United States. "We do not know the status of or results of their inspection. We are waiting."

Either way, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and ICE officials are potentially interested in locating an immigrant detention facility in Utah, whether the Ogden location or some other site. On May 30, the two agencies issued a "request for information," or RFI, to identify possible detention facility sites in and around Salt Lake City, Chicago and Harlingen, Texas, for "noncitizens and immigration violators."

An ICE rep didn't say much about the detention center talk but emphasized that seeking information doesn't mean a definitive decision has been made. The agency request "is solely for information and planning purposes and does not constitute a request for proposal, nor does it restrict the government to any acquisition approach," said Alethea Smock, an ICE spokeswoman. Proposals were due June 23.

At any rate, Gov. Spencer Cox said at his regular press conference in May that he's open to developing a detention center in Utah, in part to preclude the need to transport immigrants facing deportation to Nevada, where the closest ICE facilities to Utah are located. Debate has intensified in Utah, as in the rest of the country, over how to contend with immigrants who have illegally crossed into the United States or otherwise lack permanent legal status here.

"We would love to have a holding facility here, and we have made several offers to make that easier so there isn't this backlog when it comes to transportation," Cox said. At least as of that press conference on May 16, though, he said federal officials had turned down the Utah proposals.

The old Kiesel jail facility, in the foreground, next to the Ogden Municipal Building in Ogden, photographed Tuesday. The Kiesel building used to serve as Weber County's jail. | Tim Vandenack, KSL.com

Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith, head of the Utah Sheriff's Association, said Tuesday that he had sensed a change in tone from ICE officials since a recent meeting with Utah leaders, including Cox. "In recent weeks, they've started to show an interest," said Smith, who, like Arbon, made his own fact-finding trip to the Arizona-Mexico border in April and is attuned to the issue.

But the seeming interest in the Ogden facility notwithstanding, Smith also noted that ICE officials have shown little to no interest in other proposed Utah sites, including a decommissioned jail in Daggett County. "It probably is a little bit of a long shot, but if they're serious about needing a detention facility in Utah, this is their shot," Smith said.

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Per the ICE and Department of Homeland Security RFI, the agencies seek details for a facility with 850 to 900 beds that can accommodate low- to "high-level security adult noncitizens." It could be publicly or privately owned and operated and the Salt Lake City-area facility would serve Utah, Idaho, Montana and Nevada.

Arbon said the detention center in Ogden, if plans are to go forward, would first face the scrutiny of local officials and residents. What's more, the project would be fully funded by the federal government, requiring no local money. Smith suspects such a facility would likely house those facing just immigration offenses and others facing deportation who have served out their time in other U.S. jails or prisons for criminal offenses.

Housing of detained immigrants in local jails has been a thorny issue in light of the requirements federal officials impose on local law enforcement officials. To house immigrants on immigration offenses for more than just two or three days, the federal government prohibits intermingling of immigrants with traditional jail inmates charged or sentenced in criminal matters.

In the late 2010s, officials in Evanston, Wyoming, near the Utah state line debated construction of a detention facility for immigrants. But CoreCivic, a private company, walked away from a controversial 1,000-bed proposal that had emerged in the spring of 2020, according to WyoFile, a Wyoming news organization. Gary Welling, the Uinta County, Wyoming, economic development director, hasn’t heard of any efforts since then to revive the detention center talk, he said Tuesday.

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