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Bill limiting immigration detention in Illinois advances to governor’s desk

If signed into law, Illinois jails with existing contracts to house immigrants facing deportation would have to end the agreements with the federal government.

Sandra Davila speaks during a May Day rally that advocates for essential workers, undocumented immigrants and an end to police brutality. Hundreds marched from Union Park in the West Town neighborhood to Federal Plaza in the Loop, Saturday afternoon, May 1, 2021.
Sandra Davila speaks during a May Day rally that advocates for essential workers, undocumented immigrants and an end to police brutality. Hundreds marched from Union Park in the West Town neighborhood to Federal Plaza in the Loop, Saturday afternoon, May 1, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A bill headed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk would ban local jails from detaining people facing deportation, further restricting immigration detention across the state.

The Illinois General Assembly passed the bill, known as the Illinois Way Forward Act, Monday, and it calls for local officials to end existing contracts to detain those in immigration custody by Jan. 1. It would also prohibit law enforcement and state or local government from entering into any similar contracts in the future.

There are three jails in Illinois that detain those in immigration custody. The Jerome Combs Detention Center — about 65 miles south of Chicago in Kankakee — along with the McHenry County Jail — about 62 miles northwest of the city — are among the jails that the federal government pays to detain people in immigration custody. The third jail, the Pulaski County Detention Center, is located in the southern part of the state.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement it doesn’t comment on legislation but the agency will focus on “civil immigration enforcement on the priorities of national security, border security and public safety. [Department of Homeland Security] does not prohibit ICE from apprehending or detaining individuals who are unlawfully in the United States and fall outside of these specific priorities.”

In Kankakee, Sheriff Mike Downey, who oversees the Jerome Combs Detention Center, said officials were looking into the legality of the bill. He said he was concerned about what the change will mean for the safety of officers and the community. He expected Pritzker would support the measure, describing him as an “anti-law enforcement governor.”

“As the sheriff, we’ll continue to do what we think is right to keep our community safe,” Downey said.

The bill comes two weeks after the McHenry County Board rejected a resolution that would have ended its contract with the federal government that pays the county $95 per day for each person it detains at the jail in Woodstock. Peter Austin, the McHenry County administrator, said Tuesday that officials were still digesting the bill and what it will mean for the county.

“Does the state have the right to make these decisions,” Austin said. “These are the things we’ll ask ourselves.”

Amanda Hall, who was part of a community-based coalition pushing for McHenry County to end the contract, said Tuesday that passage of the bill will likely let many in the community breathe a sigh of relief.

“You have board members that are looking systemic racism in the face and have the power to make the change locally and who refuse to stand up,” Hall said about the County Board’s decision earlier this month. “It was very difficult. We always knew that (the Illinois Way Forward Act) was sort of the backup.”

A law from 2019 extended the state’s ban on private prisons to include detention facilities, which thwarted plans to build a private immigration detention facility in the state. Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said ICE could build and operate its own detention facility in Illinois, though the federal agency tends to pay others for detention services.

“ICE has been outsourcing its detention operations,” Tsao said. “We closed off any options for them to do so.”

If signed into law, the bill also stops local police from collaborating with ICE on immigration enforcement operations, sets up annual reporting requirements for law enforcement to report when ICE contacted the agency in regards to immigration enforcement and lets the Illinois attorney general investigate patterns of non-compliance with the law, Tsao said.

Law enforcement would be able to collaborate with federal agents or agencies on criminal investigations such as those carried out by DHS, Tsao said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.