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How detaining undocumented immigrants became a $10M cash cow for McHenry County

McHenry County Jail in Woodstock | McHenry County

In the early 2000s, McHenry County’s population was booming — and officials needed a bigger jail. To save money, the county cut a deal: the federal government gave the county millions of dollars toward expanding the jail, and in return, the county agreed to detain undocumented immigrants for the next decade.

But three years after that first contract ended, McHenry County’s population growth has slowed to the point it doesn’t need the extra room in its jail in Woodstock — but it has continued to hold detainees for the federal government.

And while the number of detainees ebbed and flowed over the years — to the point that some county commissioners wanted to end the contract — a spike in detainees recently has turned the contract into a cash cow for the county.

Related: New immigrant detention centers proposed for Illinois

The bed-rental program will bring in more than $10 million by the end of 2018, up from $8.3 million last year for housing detainees, officials said. The 2018 revenue would be the most since at least 2015, documents show. McHenry County administrator Peter Austin said the take in is among the most, if not the most, the contract has ever raised for the county in any one year.

“We still have all kinds of available capacity in our jail, so we’re utilizing that capacity in a manner that makes revenue sense for us,” he said.

‘ICE has been weaponized’

But Carlos Acosta, the former head of the McHenry County Latino Coalition who was elected to the county board this month, asked whether the contract is worth the money it brings in.

“It’s been a divisive issue because it raises the question, is there a profit motive when the county sheriff is making traffic stops?” Acosta asked, referring to stops that could lead to the arrest and detention of an undocumented immigrant.

Given President Donald Trump’s emphasis on cracking down on undocumented immigrants, Acosta questions the relationship between the county and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Over the last two years, ICE has really been weaponized. Do we really want to be part of that weaponized system?” he asked.

An ICE agent | Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP

An ICE agent | Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP

Attorney Hannah Cartwright, of the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center, denounced McHenry’s longstanding contract as a “consistent partnership that shows that basically detention is for profit.” The practice of monetizing ICE detention in general is “an invisible effort to profit on the backs of detained immigrant populations,” she said.

The McHenry County Correctional Facility is the largest that holds ICE detainees in the Chicago-area. Other facilities are located in Illinois in Kankakee and far downstate Ullin, and in Kenosha, Wis.

Since 2005, McHenry County has held detainees for ICE after the federal government gave McHenry about $7 million to expand its existing facility.

$95 per day

In addition, ICE pays McHenry County $95 per inmate, per day, according to the contract between the federal government and the county. That’s up $21 from the initial contract.

This year, the jail’s average daily population through Oct. 1 was 270 people, according to a facilities list published monthly by ICE.

McHenry’s undocumented inmate population has grown substantially in recent years, according to figures obtained by Detention Watch Network, a group based in Washington D.C. that advocates against immigration detention. McHenry held an average of 233 inmates daily in the 2017 fiscal year, up from 167 in 2015.

It’s difficult to determine what it costs to house the detainees, but McHenry County administrators believe with the higher census of recent years, the county is more than breaking even.

“It doesn’t really cost us that on an incremental basis,” Austin said. Since there is room in the jail, he said, it doesn’t matter “whether you turn on the oven to make 200 biscuits or 300 biscuits.”

However, a low census in 2014 led several county board members to question the contract after one estimate suggested it costed more than $130 to hold each detainee each day. But that estimate didn’t factor in the fixed cost of running the jail, which holds county inmates facing criminal charges.

Male inmates at the McHenry County Correctional Facility in Woodstock | Sun-times/Al Podgorski

Male inmates at the McHenry County Correctional Facility in Woodstock | Sun-times/Al Podgorski

Yet, the report stirred up controversy, with some county leaders lamenting what, according to that estimate, is a loss of money.

“This never should have happened,” McHenry County Board member Donna Kurtz told the Northwest Herald in 2014. “Government is not designed to be a consistent generator of positive cash flow with outside programs. Knowing what we know now, we shouldn’t have gotten into this jail bed-rental program.”

Although the original 10-year arrangement ended in 2015,  Tina Hill, the then-chair of the county commission, signed a contract to renew it in 2014.

Calls for greater oversight

Lt. Mike Lukas of the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office said the county makes additional money providing transportation: the county was paid $450,000 for transporting detainees last year, for example.

The money ICE pays McHenry doesn’t go directly back to the jail or sheriff’s office, but goes into the larger county fund. In addition to those institutions, the general fund also pays for county operations such as the court system, clerical staff in the administration office and heating and electric bills.

In recent years, the general fund has had between $70 million and $80 million, Austin said. For fiscal year 2018, the sheriff’s office budget was $34.7 million, according to Lukas. About $17.7 million goes toward operating the jail.

Lukas thinks the contract is a net win for the county, especially now with the additional revenue with the increased number of detainees.

“It’s beneficial to the county because there’s jobs that wouldn’t be here if we weren’t doing this,” he said.

Acosta said he will start his term on the county board by posing questions on the detention facility to get more thorough data on what conditions are like inside.

“Immigration policy is now county policy and county policy is now immigration policy,” Acosta said.

Acosta recognizes the county is reliant on the income from ICE, but said there should be greater oversight.

“I have to be cognizant of the fiscal impact of terminating any program, but again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with at least asking those questions and getting data on that,” he said.

“I’ve had the opportunity to visit other detention centers around Illinois and the conditions were pretty poor. … That’s the other side of the argument, if we close the facility and we continue down this road to indefinite detention, are we going to put these immigrants in a worse situation?”