Michigan lawmakers look to Gitmo for stimulus

Lawmakers from Michigan are considering a novel kind of stimulus for their state’s struggling economy: Guantánamo Bay detainees.

Democratic members in the House and Senate have said that Michigan prisons set to close because of a state budget crunch could take the high-profile prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, which President Obama has vowed to shutter by early next year.

They see hosting the prisoners as saving or creating jobs in a state devastated by the decline of the U.S. auto industry. Michigan’s unemployment rate of 15.4 percent is tops in the nation.

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Rep. Bart Stupak (D), the first Michigan lawmaker to float the idea, said housing prisoners would maintain jobs, and both Sen. Carl Levin (D) and Rep. Dale Kildee (D) said they could take in the Gitmo detainees in Michigan prisons as long as nearby residents and state and local officials agree to it.

“I would tend to agree with the local community,” Kildee said.

Still, it’s unclear whether Michigan will ever become Guantánamo North.

Stupak has held discussions with the administration about moving the detainees to a prison in Manistique, a town of 3,500 people on the state’s Upper Peninsula. But he said a White House Office and Management Budget official told him last month that the Camp Manistique facility, which wasn’t outfitted for maximum-security prisoners, didn’t provide what the administration needs.

The idea is also opposed by most of the state’s Republicans, who cite safety concerns, and while state officials have discussed housing prisoners from other states, it’s unclear whether they’d accept detainees from Guantánamo.

But Michigan lawmakers and some residents haven’t given up on the idea, and the self-imposed deadline for the Obama administration to close the Cuban prison camp and move the detainees somewhere is fast approaching.

The administration’s effort to close the camp has been constrained by lawmakers from other states and from both parties who oppose bringing the prisoners into the country.

Members of Congress, voicing fears that the prisoners would endanger their constituents, blocked the use of money in the $106 billion war-funding bill from going toward the prison’s closure, and House members in their defense appropriation bill have included a ban on transferring the detainees to U.S. soil

That’s put the administration in a difficult position, as it’s tough to convince foreign governments to accept detainees if the U.S. is unwilling to do so itself.

Bucking their colleagues, Stupak and other senior Democrats from Michigan remain open to incarcerating the detainees in local prisons, partly because they could keep them open and save jobs. State officials are looking at closing eight prisons, which would lead to more layoffs.

GOP lawmakers from Michigan say housing terror detainees near their residents is too dangerous.

The detainees, many of whom were captured in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda, “are the hardest-core that they could send,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).

“How do you stop the radicalization of the other prisoners and in the community?” Rogers said. “And the only reason [Democrats] want to do it is for a few dollars.”

Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the ranking Republican on the House Select Intelligence Committee and a candidate for governor, said that the prisons in Michigan can’t provide the same protection as Gitmo, which is near the water and accessible mainly by boat.

Some Michigan residents, however, have nudged lawmakers to consider taking the detainees into Michigan facilities. Dave Munson, owner of the Summer Trail Inn in Standish, said that the maximum-security prison in his town would be better off taking on new prisoners, possibly even the ones from Guantánamo, instead of closing.

Munson traveled to Washington to lobby lawmakers to keep open the Standish prison, which employs approximately 300 people in a town whose population is about 1,500. Munson noted that the community was caught unprepared for the prison closure, which state officials announced last month and plan to carry out later this year.

“You’re looking at a substantial hit if it happens,” said Munson, who also serves as the vice president of the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association.

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Munson said that he preferred that the prison take on inmates from other states such as California or Wisconsin, which has considered sending inmates out of state to alleviate overcrowding.

He also said he’s had some second thoughts about taking on the Gitmo detainees since talking to Hoekstra, who said their presence would raise the risk for prison employees and their families.

“I don’t think [Standish residents] would turn down the Guantánamo detainees, but there would be some real concerns,” Munson said.