In August, the state of Illinois agreed to end immigrant detention and restrict the capacity of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to hold immigrants awaiting court dates. But this does not mean the people in custody will be freed—ICE has the power to transfer them to its facilities in other states. And just 25 miles away in Indiana, the Clay County Justice Center wants to be that facility.
Clay County officials are considering a recent proposal to expand the local jail to increase capacity for immigrant detention. The jail currently holds the only ICE contract in Indiana. Once the Illinois contracts end, Clay County will have the only immigrant detention center between Wisconsin and Kentucky, as reported by Injustice Watch. This is a lucrative prospect for the mostly white, heavily Republican county.
The Department of Homeland Security pays Clay County $55 per day per immigrant detained, plus additional revenues for transportation expenses. Last year, the county earned over $1 million by holding around 50 immigrants each day—about half of the annual costs of running the jail.
“We are very fortunate our jail brings in money.”
“We are very fortunate our jail brings in money,” Clay County Commissioner Marty Heffner told WTWO/WAWV. “With a new building, we will have 30-35 new jobs … By not complying and extending our jail we risk losing that ICE contract. We are very fortunate to have that here.”
Only three counties in Illinois currently maintain ICE contracts. When Governor JB Priztker (D) signed into law SB 667 on August 2, it mandated all local agencies to either end or let expire any ICE contracts by 2022. This means Illinois could have the most aggressive anti-detention policy in the US—several other states have passed or are considering similar legislation, but they wouldn’t take effect for some time. The bill effectively ends immigration detention in the state, though ICE can still operate there independently.
The Clay County jail has a maximum capacity of 175 beds. The proposed construction project, estimated to cost around $25 million, would add a new building containing an additional 275-300 beds. It would begin in March 2022.
Immigrants and allies in Indiana are not staying quiet. At publication time, a petition to stop the new jail’s construction had more than 16,000 supporters. Immigrant rights groups Mariposa Legal and Cosecha Indiana—the local chapter of the national grassroots organization—are mobilizing advocates to join the county hearings and speak out against the new jail.
“The issue that doesn’t resonate here, because it’s rural Indiana, is the quality of care for the detainees,” Clay County resident Reanda Kirchner told Injustice Watch. “I think some people are OK with making money off of detaining somebody.”
ICE facilities are notorious for abuse.
More than 20,000 people are currently being held in ICE detention across the US. The majority of them do not have criminal records. The agency often contracts with city- or county-owned jails or private prisons, and also own a small number of jails outright.
This is why local governments are such an important part of the immigration debate—they often provide the physical space ICE needs continue detaining people. Since ICE is a federal agency within the executive branch, it’s very difficult for activists to have any influence over its actions.
But they can sometimes pressure local governments to end their contracts with ICE. This is what recently happened in Bergen County, New Jersey—on October 6, after years of pressure, elected county commissioners unanimously voted to end ICE contract at the last remaining jail in the state to have one. The county will still profit off of detaining immigrants, but they’ll be under the authority of the US Marshals Service rather than ICE.
ICE facilities are notorious for abuse: Detainees often face lack of access to drinking water, an inability to communicate with their lawyers and families and medical neglect including rampant COVID-19 transmission. A recent inspection of the Clay County jail found dozens of violations of ICE’s own health and safety standards, most notably a lack of on-site staff with sufficient medical training.
Photograph via Rep. Scott Peters