The McHenry County Board voted Tuesday night to keep a federal contract that allows the local jail to house immigrants facing deportation.
The vote — 15 to 8 — came after more than two hours of heated public comments. The County Board rejected a resolution that had called for county officials to begin ending its agreement with the federal government by Nov. 1, 2021.
The McHenry County Jail is one of three county facilities in Illinois that has a contract with the federal government that allows the county to detain people in deportation proceedings.
The federal government pays McHenry County $95 per day for each person it detains at the jail, according to a county resolution passed in 2014. The facility has the capacity to hold 250 people in ICE custody, according to an inspection report published in August 2020. The average daily population in fiscal year 2021 was 103, according to a presentation to the McHenry County Board. The average daily population — 279 — peaked during fiscal year 2019.
Tuesday’s vote happened as a growing coalition of community groups in McHenry County, which is about 60 miles from Chicago, pushed for nearly a year for local officials to end the contract.
During Tuesday’s meeting, one young man told the County Board about how his father, who is detained at the jail, has missed his high school graduation and his move to college. Opponents raised concerns about crime, and another speaker described immigration as a crisis across the country.
Michael Vijuk, a County Board member who had pushed for the resolution, said just before the vote that the resolution could have larger implications for immigration across the country.
“We are going to throw a pebble in the water; it’s not a big rock, not a massive thing,” Vijuk said. “That pebble will begin to ripple.”
But the majority of the board wasn’t convinced, with 15 members voting against the measure. Two board members did not vote.
“This County Board doesn’t have the ability to solve the immigration problems in this country,” said Joseph Gottemoller, one of the board members. He went on to describe the idea of getting rid of immigration detention as ludicrous.
On the state level, a bill being pushed in the General Assembly would prevent counties across the state from entering into similar contracts with ICE to detain those facing deportation, said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The county facilities with current contracts would have to phase out the agreements by next year, Tsao said.
As of Tuesday, the bill, known as the Illinois Way Forward Act, had not been voted on by either chamber. Tsao said those supporting the bill have been working with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office on its language.
“We see both the McHenry County Board vote and the Illinois Way Forward as a mechanism to put pressure on ICE and (U.S. Department of) Homeland Security to end the detention system altogether,” Tsao said.
Alethea Smock, an ICE spokesperson, said Tuesday that the agency does not comment on local or state legislation. In a statement, the agency said it was “committed to ensuring that all those in our custody reside in safe, secure, and humane environments and under appropriate conditions of confinement.”
“ICE continues to implement interim civil immigration enforcement priorities directed by DHS to focus its limited resources on threats to national security, border security, and public safety,” according to an ICE statement.
The coronavirus pandemic has added scrutiny to immigration detention. In January, an outbreak at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee resulted in at least 21 ICE detainees testing positive for COVID-19, according to ICE statistics. The outbreak happened just before the state’s vaccination distribution called for people detained in prisons and jails to be inoculated.
The Pulaski County Jail, located in the southern part of Illinois, was at the center of a recently released report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, which found the jail was in violation of five detention standards.
In the report, the inspector general stated the lack of enforcement of the coronavirus pandemic guidelines such as mask wearing could have contributed to repeated transmissions of the virus. At least 116 people at the jail had tested positive for COVID-19 since February 2020, according to ICE statistics.
Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.