Chicago-area advocates seek release of the last remaining immigrants in custody in Illinois

A recent federal court order allowed a new law in Illinois to move forward, which calls for local entities to end existing contracts that previously allowed local jails to house people facing deportations.

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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 file photo

In less than a month, immigration detention will essentially end in Illinois, and advocates in the Chicago area want U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release detainees who are awaiting their deportation cases rather then transfer them out of state.

A federal court order on Jan. 12 allowed the state to move forward with the Illinois Way Forward Act. In early January, there were 94 people who remained in immigration custody at the McHenry County Jail and the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee.

Recently, activists in cars with signs saying, “Free them all,” circled the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock — about 60 miles northwest of Chicago.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker in August signed into law the Illinois Way Forward, which called for local officials to end existing contracts to detain people in immigration custody by Jan. 1. It prohibits law enforcement, state or local entities from entering into similar agreements in the future.

A legal challenge brought by officials in McHenry and Kankakee counties delayed the implementation. Their lawsuit was dismissed in December in U.S. District Court, but the counties have a pending appeal in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

A stay that had been issued in the appellate case has since ended, meaning that the two remaining counties had to begin the process of ending their contracts, said Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for the office of Attorney General Kwame Raoul, which defended the law in federal court.

ICE and the Kankakee County sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

McHenry County terminated its contract Jan. 13, which will give federal agents 30 days to remove the remaining people in immigration custody, said Alicia Schueller, communications and project manager for the county in an email.

The changes come amid a surge of COVID-19 cases across the state. In recent weeks, there were as many as 17 COVID-19 cases at the McHenry County Jail. As of Sunday, there were 14 cases, according to the latest figures from ICE. Two ICE detainees had COVID-19 at the Jerome Combs Detention Center in Kankakee County, according to ICE.

The COVID-19 cases are one reason why advocates are pushing for the release of immigrants facing deportation, said Dave Faherty, a supervising attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center’s detention project.

“That’s all the more reason to not be transferring people to other facilities that continue to spread this virus and subject these individuals to the virus and to potential harm,” Faherty said.

Jonah, who asked that his full name not be used, spent about four months in immigration detention at the McHenry County Jail before he was released in late December pending the outcome of his deportation case. He’s returned to his job as a traveling nurse after spending those months in detention in a cell by himself where he usually was only allowed to come out for about an hour, he said.

He said it was difficult for those in custody to get access to soap unless the person had family or friends that could send them money to purchase it. He spoke to other people in immigration custody who had difficulty getting their medicine for pre-existing conditions.

“The threat right now is COVID; the threat is not the people,” he said, adding that he thought others should have the opportunity to be released while awaiting the outcome of their immigration cases.

The National Immigrant Justice Center is working with volunteers and other organizations to file release requests on behalf of those detained, Faherty said. The review process will be overseen by ICE officials.

The COVID-19 measures implemented at the McHenry County Jail had made it difficult for attorneys to schedule confidential calls with their clients, Faherty said. As of this week, attorneys were able to schedule more calls with clients, but there were still some restrictions in place with some detainees reporting delays in getting access to medical treatment, he said.

ICE officials can release someone in their custody to an alternative program rather than placing them in another jail, said Fred Tsao, the senior policy counsel with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Soon after Pritzker signed the measure last summer, Pulaski County in southern Illinois ended its contract with ICE, and three men were released from custody.

Tsao said advocates were later able to get an additional dozen people released. Some of the individuals who had been held at the Pulaski County Jail ended up at the Jerome Combs Detention Center, McHenry County Jail or at a facility in Kansas, Tsao said.

“There was a lot of misinformation and wrong information that was provided throughout this entire release process,” said Tsao, who added the review process at the Pulaski County Jail was done within days.

Faherty said that because deportation cases are a civil matter, immigrants in custody should be released.

“And ICE can still try to deport people, but they don’t have to actually keep them detained in order to accomplish that goal,” he said. “This is an opportunity with the closure of these two detention centers — especially in this time of this pandemic when it’s so dangerous to be housing people like this — it doesn’t make sense to transfer people to other facilities.”

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

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