In the 25 years Rogelio Bandala has called McHenry County home, families have moved away out of fear as he’s watched children grow up with the stress and uncertainty of immigration cases.
“It’s a fear that’s unexplainable,” Bandala said in Spanish. “The people who haven’t lived it, they don’t see the fear, how it feels.”
Bandala is part of a growing coalition of community groups in McHenry County pushing local officials to end the contract that allows the McHenry County Jail to detain people in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. On Thursday, the contract is expected to come up as a topic of discussion during the county’s finance and audit committee’s public meeting, said Peter Austin, the county administrator.
For more than 15 years, people in ICE custody have been held at the McHenry County Jail, located about 60 miles from Chicago in Woodstock. It’s one of three local jails in Illinois where immigrants facing deportation can be held. The federal government pays the county $95 per day for each person it detains in the jail, according to a county resolution passed in 2014.
The facility has the capacity to detain 250 people in ICE custody, according to an inspection report published in August 2020. The average daily population in fiscal year 2021 was 113.
Last summer, a resolution was introduced that would have begun proceedings to end the contract. During a lengthy discussion at a law and government/liquor committee hearing, other board members were critical of the resolution saying there wasn’t enough information on the economic impact of ending the contract. Others thought the resolution was rushed.
It didn’t advance past the committee on July 28, and it never moved forward to the McHenry County Board.
Kelli Wegener, a county board member, said there are still efforts to bring the resolution to the county board. Wegener, who supported the resolution, said she and others have been trying to figure out how much it’s costing to house ICE detainees.
“In order to move forward with the resolution, we need to know the impact on the county,” Wegener said.
Austin, the McHenry County administrator, said the county estimates it roughly costs $25 to $40 to house someone in immigration custody. The jail’s expenses, including officers and medical services, are used by everyone in the jail, not just those in immigration custody.
The jail was built with assistance from federal funds when the county was seeing a growth in population that has since slowed, Austin said. The number of immigration detainees has fluctuated through the years with the county sometimes housing as many as 300 people in ICE custody. In contrast, the jail has sometimes had less than 100 ICE detainees this year, Austin said.
“I don’t know where this issue is going to go,” he said. “Regardless of who is president, there does seem to be a need, on some level, for these detention services. McHenry has historically provided that service in a way that has been cost effective and safe.”
Woodstock resident Amanda Hall said she sees the contract as a moral issue. Hall, who is part of the coalition, founded the group Standing Against Racism Woodstock in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Hall, 42, didn’t know immigrants were being held at the local jail until she got involved in the coalition.
“To know that I’m part of a community that has allowed a detention center that keeps people away from their families (and) spreads terror throughout the community, that bothers me to the core,” Hall said. “We aren’t all free until everyone is free and treated equally.”
In recent months, the coalition has organized caravans, created yard signs and held family friendly protests to raise awareness about the contract. Austin said the coalition made several calls to officials that prompted the committee to discuss the contract at this week’s meeting.
The group recently made public a letter they say is from two people in immigration custody who raised questions about the conditions.
The push to end the contract is among several “shut down” campaigns taking place across the country where immigrants are housed, said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
In 2019, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed a law that expanded the state’s ban on private prisons to include detention facilities, which essentially thwarted plans for a private detention center in the state.
“The next logical step in this is to end the current ICE contracts in the jails,” Tsao said. “That would send a strong signal to ICE, detention whether for profit or in public hands is just not acceptable. That we should be looking beyond immigration detention and just not arresting and prosecuting and deporting people as it is.”
Another coalition member, Sandra Dávila, who founded Elgin in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter, said for her, the contract is a regional issue.
“Anyone who gets detained from the suburbs, anywhere from the state can be transferred to that detention center,” Dávila said.
Bandala, of Woodstock, said when the jail started its contract with ICE, some immigrants left the area — sometimes even the state — out of fear they would be detained during a traffic stop. He thinks many of those immigrants could have helped the area grow, adding that many immigrants like himself are essential workers.
While Thursday’s discussion of the contract won’t include a vote, Michael Vijuk, a McHenry County Board member who co-wrote the ordinance, said he thinks it should be considered by the board for further discussion.
“It’s so important to have the community or the members of the area talk about this issue publicly,” Vijuk said. “And by having them talk about it, it comes upfront and gets its due process.”
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.