A tiny Illinois town has become the latest battleground in the effort to build an immigration detention center near Chicago
By Elvia Malagon
Mar 19, 2019 at 8:12 AM
Mary Flott thinks of her hometown of Dwight as a quiet, quaint village. But she worries that if a proposed development is built, people will identify it more with a large immigration detention center that would sit on the side of the highway.
Flott, 71, had already been opposed to President Donald Trump’s policies when she learned in recent weeks that the national debate about immigration was coming to her backyard, less than two hours southwest of Chicago. Last week, Dwight’s board of trustees voted in favor of an agreement that brings Virginia-based Immigration Centers of America, known as ICA, one step closer to building an immigration detention center there.
The effort in Dwight is the latest attempt to build a private detention center near Chicago. Pushback from activists and the community has stopped other proposals over the past decade.
For the plan to go forward, the company must now secure a contract with the federal government by September 2020, said Jared Anderson, the Dwight village board president.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on the proposal. However, ICE is looking to contract with a detention center and recently posted a request for one within an 80-mile radius of Chicago’s immigration court, according to a website with information about federal contracts. The federal agency is seeking a facility that can house 1,000 people in various levels of security and that could facilitate travel to and from cities like Milwaukee and Indianapolis.
Immigration advocates say a private detention center could nearly double the population of detainedimmigrants facing deportation in the Chicago area.
For Flott, the past couple of weeks have felt like a crash course in the country’s immigration laws. The first time she heard about the ICA proposal was in February.
“I don’t think anybody in Dwight is going to come up with a really good, humane cost-effective means of dealing with immigration,” Flott said by phone. “I think by having a detention center here, it promotes the idea that we are OK with the policy the way it is and I’m definitely not.”
As the United States ramped up efforts to enforce immigration under then-President Barack Obama, it sought to consolidate existing operations, said Fred Tsao, the senior policy counsel with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
In the Chicago area, the federal government had been housing detainees, in part, through contracts with the Kankakee County Detention Center, the McHenry County Jail and the Kenosha County Detention Center in Wisconsin.
“So ICE has been wanting to bring a lot of their detention operations together but also with the possibility of increasing that capacity,” Tsao said.
The first attempt to build a private prison facility in the region foundered in Crete in 2012 when village leaders rejected a plan by the Corrections Corporation of America. Village officials at the time cited money as the reason the proposal was struck down.
Then a different private corrections company, the GEO Group, purchased property in Hobart, Ind., but never gained approval from local officials, Tsao said. In the years that followed, attempts were made in Elkhart County, Ind., Gary, Newton County, Ind., and Hopkins Park, Ill., to build similar private detention centers. A wave of opposition from immigration activists followed each attempt.
“All the others were basically killed either at a vote of the village officials or never got a vote because the proposal was withdrawn,” Tsao said.
Unlike past efforts, in Dwight the Immigration Centers of America has gotten approval from the local government to move forward, Tsao said.
The effort in Dwight dates back to at least 2017 when the company filed a request for information from the federal government about the possibility of building a detention center in the Chicago area, according to documents obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center through a Freedom of Information Act request. At the time, ICA did not specify a location.
The company operates an immigration detention center in Farmville, Va., but has tried to expand to the Midwest. Earlier this year, it sought to purchase a former state prison in Ionia, Mich., east of Grand Rapids.
The effort to buy the land from the state was blocked by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in February because ICA couldn’t guarantee the detainees wouldn’t include parents who had been separated from their children or other relatives, the Detroit Free Press reported. ICA continues to search for a location in Michigan, according to the company’s spokesperson.
When the idea was first raised to build a large private facility, the National Immigrant Justice Center considered whether having a centralized detention center might actually improve their efforts to provide legal representation for the detainees.
“At the time, we were taken by the idea of having a centralized location for representation, but I think we’ve come to the sound conclusion now that any policy like this is intended to increase detention and we’re completely against it,” said Mark Fleming, the associate director of litigation.
Anderson, the president of Dwight’s village board, said he first heard about Immigration Centers of America when someone from the company called the village. He said ICA seems different than other private companies operating immigration detention centers. He visited the Virginia location several weeks ago and was impressed.
“Just to me, they were very well-managed,” Anderson said.
Last week, the village entered into an agreement with the company to annex and rezone 88 acres of land where the detention center could be built, Anderson said. With the approval of the village board, the company can now seek a federal contract to move forward with the project, Anderson said. The land sits south of Route 17 and east of Interstate 55, according to village documents.
Anderson said Dwight, with a population of about 4,200, lost jobs and businesses when the state closed a women’s prison that had been located in the village. The proposed detention center has the potential to help the region’s economy, Anderson said, noting that the company estimates it could bring more than 300 jobs to the area.
He said pushback against the project has largely come from outside of Dwight. He estimates that he received about 100 emails about the project, but only five to seven of them were from Dwight residents.
John Truscott, a spokesperson for ICA, said details about the facility — such as how many people it would house or whether the population would be limited to one gender — would be determined by the federal contract the company has not yet obtained. He estimates the facility could bring from 350 to 450 full-time jobs with salaries starting at $68,000.
Though there have been protests in recent weeks against the proposal, Truscott, too, said those opposed to the project were not from Dwight.
“We are more than happy to listen to what they have to say,” Truscott said. “In the end, this is a decision for the citizens of Dwight.”
Sonny Garcia, of Bloomington, Ill., who organized actions against the proposal, said area activists only learned about the plan in February from a local newspaperstory. He said some Dwight residents told organizers they felt intimidated to voice their opinion in public.
Tsao expects further protests as the project moves through the pipeline.
“The village has kicked a hornet’s nest and I think if anything, it’s drawn even further attention to immigration detention and I think we’ll see even more concerns raised and even more activism regarding immigration detention in the months and years to come,” Tsao said.
Livingston County Board member Bill Wilkey, who lives in Dwight and previously served on the village board, said the only people who seem to be in favor of building a detention center there are members of the village board.He personally doesn’t think the facility would give the area a “good name.”
He is skeptical of the finances involved in the project, pointing out that the land where the facility would be built doesn’t have the infrastructure, such as sewer and water, to support it.
“To me, this whole thing is a scam,” Wilkey said.
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