A plan for a private immigration detention center two hours from Chicago is facing a challenge from Democratic Illinois lawmakers who are seeking a statewide ban on such facilities.
The proposed law, House Bill 2040, passed the Illinois House on Wednesday and seeks to expand the state’s moratorium on private prisons to include civil detention centers like those that hold immigrants facing deportation.
The legislative maneuver has emerged as a contentious national debate on immigration shows no signs of waning. In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has threatened to close off the southern border while still calling for the construction of a wall, and controversy remains over his administration’s separation of migrant children from their parents, a practice now suspended.
The Illinois bill is a response to a vote by local leaders in Dwight, Ill., that opened the door for the private, Virginia-based Immigration Centers of America to secure a federal contract and build an immigration detention center to serve the Chicago area. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is currently accepting proposals for detention services within 80 miles of Chicago that would house an estimated 1,000 people.
State Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, filed the bill in February and hopes it will stop the Dwight plan. She said that “profiting off putting people in cages is morally bankrupt and not something that the state of Illinois should be supporting.”
She noted that the Dwight effort is the latest in a series of attempts to build an immigration detention center near Chicago.
“There’s sort of a pattern here that towns begin the process of walking down this road toward building a private, for-profit immigration detention center and then, at some point, decide it really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” Cassidy said. “This is one more step in that saga that we’ve seen play out several times already.”
The proposed law would amend the Private Correctional Facility Moratorium Act to prohibit any local government from contracting with a private provider for “community correctional supervision.”
The moratorium has been part of Illinois law for decades and prohibits local, county and state governments from hiring private companies to incarcerate people in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice or a sheriff.
A similar effort in 2011 to expand the moratorium to civil detention facilities failed to pass the legislature.
State Rep. Celina Villanueva, another Chicago Democrat and one of the co-sponsors of this year’s bill, said the effort is in response to the Dwight plan but also the prospect of similar facilities elsewhere in the state.
“My concern isn’t just Dwight. My concern is the entire state of Illinois,” Villanueva said.
Private companies have been involved in the detention of immigrants since at least the 1970s, according to “Inside Private Prisons: An American Dilemma in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” a 2018 book by Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. She wrote that more than 60 percent of immigration detention beds nationwide were operated by private companies.
And in recent years, these types of companies have been looking to expand into the interior of the country, Eisen told the Tribune.
Typically, she said, such large private detention centers are in states along the southern border, “and what is interesting about this is that the private prison industry is really set to profit greatly because they are the ones who can build these facilities cheaply and quickly.”
Immigrants detained in the interior of the country typically remain in custody longer than those detained at the border, which could be why a company would want to expand in the Midwest, Eisen said.
Illinois isn’t the first state to attempt to ban private immigration detention centers. California passed a law in 2017 prohibiting new contracts with the federal government or with private companies to house immigrants in custody. The measure also bans the expansion of existing contracts.
Since the law went into effect, a handful of communities in California have voted to end immigration detention contracts, said Liz Martinez, the director of advocacy and communications at Freedom for Immigrants.
But in one case, a company appears to have found a loophole by getting a contract extension directly from the federal government after the local government voted to end it, Martinez said.
When some of those contracts expired, advocates have attempted to raise money to bail immigrants out of detention, while those who couldn’t be released were moved by the federal government to another detention center, Martinez said.
She acknowledges there’s no foolproof law that can stop the detention of people facing deportation but thinks states should try to resist policies of the Trump administration, which is “really pushing the boundaries on everything.” Illinois can’t completely stop immigration detention because that’s a policy that’s handled on the federal level, she said.
“States can do a lot to end detention, but because ICE is a federal agency, the best way that this will be sort of (be) 100 percent effective is through federal legislation,” Martinez said.
In Dwight, officials are monitoring the progress of the Illinois bill and trying to figure out what it would mean for the agreement the village had already entered into with Immigration Centers of America, said Village President Jared Anderson.
“We are not going to make a comment on anything until the state does what it wants to do,” he said.
Anderson said the plan to bring a detention center to Dwight, which has a population of about 4,200, could bring more than 300 jobs to the area. He said the village lost jobs and businesses when the state closed a women’s prison in town several years ago.
Immigration Centers of American spokesman John Truscott said the company is moving forward with efforts to land a federal contract to operate in Illinois while also monitoring action in Springfield. He said the bill’s final language will determine whether it affects the company’s plans.
“We will continue making progress until it’s just not feasible or we don’t get awarded the facility on the federal level,” Truscott said.
An ICE official declined to comment on the proposed Illinois legislation.
Kent Redfield, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said a state can’t outlaw private companies from entering into contracts with the federal government. But the pending bill is an example of how the state can limit the power of local government agencies to enter into contractual arrangements with private companies.
Redfield said bills such as HB2040 can have concrete consequences but can also be used to serve a broader political agenda.
“This is all about Trump’s immigration policies and the people that are opposed to the detention policies,” Redfield said. “So there is a whole political back and forth between supporters and opponents.”
The bill could also have a real impact on the timeline of the construction of these types of facilities by delaying the projects, Redfield said.
“If you slow things down and create ambiguity, sometimes you end up derailing things even though you are arguing a position that didn’t have a solid legal basis,” Redfield said.
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April 11, 2019 at 02:51PM