Taylor Mayor Brandt Rydell’s official city email account began blowing up Friday morning. By mid-morning, more than 120 messages had stuffed his inbox, all with the same heading: “Who are you protecting?”
“It’s been a while since I drew such ire with such an organized effort,” he sighed, “at least since Taylor stopped sacking rattlesnakes in the park for sport.”
The emails which, along with a campaign on social media, all said the same thing and are part of a new front the Grass Roots Leadership (GRL) has opened in an effort to close the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor.
The email bombardment asked, “In a time when immigrants and asylum seekers are under cruel and inhumane attack from the Trump administration, who are you protecting and why are you not doing anything to ensure T. Don Hutto closes for good?”
The campaign comes on the heels of a television interview Rydell gave regarding his recent tour of the center and a contract with CoreCivic and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] division.
In his televised comments, Rydell said he was impressed with the staff’s professionalism and dedication, and noted the staff let him go anywhere within the facility he wanted to go.
“That didn’t jibe with the narrative of Grass Roots Leadership or, perhaps, with the experiences of some of the people who were detained there,” he said. “But, I can only speak to what I saw.”
“Mayor Rydell is a public official and has a public platform,” said Bethany Carson, immigration policy researcher for the GRL. “He chose to defend CoreCivic and city’s business interest instead of defending the people being abused in T. Don Hutto. For the last six months Taylor community members have been asking the mayor to take action to make sure this place doesn’t remain open but he used a public forum to minimize the testimony that’s already been given. This is unacceptable to the community members we’ve been talking to.”
“I understand where they’re coming from,” Rydell said, noting that he granted the television interview because he was uncomfortable with the city’s inability to offer an official comment on a contract between a federal agency and a private business. “As someone in elected office, I understand people project on to me and I become the focus of their frustration and their anger. I’m sympathetic to many of their concerns. What’s frustrating is that we’re being called on to address an issue that is much bigger than the Taylor City Council. This is about national immigration policy and privatization of prisons. I know this is a big issue for many folks but it’s not really within our bailiwick.”
“Well, we’ve heard that a lot,” said Carson. “We are hoping to get some answers from him about why he and the Taylor City Council aren’t working to get the center shut down and those women released. Taylor does receive over $400,000 in payments each year (taxes, water revenue) from CoreCivic. This is a business that is operating in an abusive and irresponsible manner… [and] given standing as a reputable member of the business community and of the Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s easy to beat up on us but, as a council, we have priorities, priorities people elected us to address,” said Rydell. “We’re trying to fix streets! We’ve got our hands full enough with that.”
Williamson County officials cancelled its oversight contract with ICE last summer. That contract ended Thursday and ICE has not replaced it with any other government contract. Instead, officials signed a contract directly with CoreCivic.
Officials with CoreCivic had no comment about the contract. The only thing ICE officials would say was to confirm that the agency had entered into a “short-term contract extension” in order to remain open after the county’s contract expired.
ICE did not approach the City of Taylor with a contract offer.