CHICAGO (AP) — An Illinois law aimed at ending federal
immigration detention in the New Year has hit another legal snag, delaying a
change immigrant rights activists had celebrated as historic.
Local governments in Illinois cannot enter into new federal
agreements allowing jails to house immigrant detainees and must end old ones in
2022 under the law signed in August by Gov. J.B. Pritzker. Other states
including Maryland and New Jersey have enacted similar laws.
Three Illinois counties with such federal agreements faced a
Jan. 1 deadline to end contracts. While one in downstate Illinois complied last
year, two others are involved in a federal lawsuit challenging the law. The
case was dismissed last month, but a federal judge on Thursday granted an
extension while an appeal is considered. Authorities in McHenry and Kankakee
counties now have until Jan. 13.
Immigrant rights activists have celebrated the law for
months, saying incarcerating people awaiting immigration proceedings is
inhumane and costly. But others, including authorities in McHenry and Kankakee
counties, argue they'll lose revenue and that ending contracts creates new
complications such as moving detainees away from family.
“This decision will have absolutely no impact on these
detainees being released," Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey said in a
statement after the lawsuit's dismissal. "In fact, they will undoubtedly
be transferred to other states, all the while forcing families of these
detainees to travel much farther to visit their loved ones, all due to typical
partisan Illinois politics in Springfield."
In far southern Illinois, the Pulaski County Detention
Center cleared out immigrant detainees during Labor Day weekend. Most of the
roughly 50 detainees were transferred to either the two other Illinois
facilities or Kansas.
Initially three were released, but more followed in the
coming days during a process in which detainees were allowed to submit evidence
on their cases. Fifteen total detainees were released, according to court
“I was very happy. I was even crying. I felt like this was a
miracle," said Angel, an immigrant from Honduras who declined to give his
last name out of concern for his pending immigration case. The father of four
said he left Honduras to escape gang violence.
He was detained for about a month after police found him
asleep in a parked car after he had been drinking. He was turned over to
immigration authorities. After his release from Pulaski during the Labor Day
weekend, he was reunited with family in Indiana, according to Diana Rashid, an
attorney with the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center.
Leaders in McHenry and Kankakee counties sued in September
over the Illinois law, calling it overreach. Together both counties have the
capacity for nearly 400 detainees, though each one currently has far fewer,
largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Prior to Thursday's stay, McHenry, which currently houses
about 65 detainees, had planned to notify ICE on Jan. 1 that it would wind down
its month-to-month contract and transfer or release detainees within 30 days,
or by January's end, according to Peter Austin, county administrator. After the
stay, McHenry county officials said they plan to do so after the extension,
which means detainees would be released or transferred next month.
The contract brings in roughly $10 million annually, a
significant source of money and jobs for the northern Illinois county along the
Wisconsin border with a roughly $200 million annual budget. The county jail has
housed immigrant detainees since 2003.
Kankakee County, which has a similar contract and has
detained immigrants at the Jerome Combs Detention Center since 2016, was also
anticipating a revenue loss. The jail is roughly 65 miles from Chicago. In a
December statement, Kankakee County Board Chairman Andy Wheeler said the county
would appeal "as far as we can, up to and including the U.S. Supreme
County leaders including the sheriff declined interview
requests or didn't return requests for comment. ICE also declined to provide
Meanwhile, a county jail in neighboring Indiana was
preparing to potentially house additional detainees transferred from Illinois.
The state barred private detention in 2019 following failed attempts to build a
new facility near Chicago.
Immigrant rights advocates, who said the delay was only
temporary, planned to argue for the release of detainees versus transfers,
which could move them farther from legal help. But they continued to praise the
Illinois law, saying incarceration is destabilizing to families.
“It’s part of a larger strategy. The ultimate goal is to
ultimately abolish detention,” said Grisel Ruiz with the California-based
Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
Johannes Favi, 34, was released from Kankakee County in 2020
following health concerns about COVID-19. He praised the new law, saying there
was always fear of being transferred somewhere far away even before the law.
The father of three overstayed a 2013 visitor visa from
Benin and was in the process of applying for a green card, but while pleading
guilty at a hearing related to a 2015 financial crime, immigration agents took
him into custody.
He has been reunited with his family in Indianapolis and
become an advocate for other detainees.
“You are being traumatized from the minute you are being
arrested,” he said. “People who have not committed a crime should be released
back to their families."