Illinois Sets National Precedent in Banning Immigration Detention

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit against the Illinois Way Forward Act. The new law, which makes immigrant detention illegal within the state, will take effect in the New Year. McHenry and Kankakee Counties filed the suit. They were holding Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees in their local jails. The counties will need to end their contracts and terminate any court proceedings with ICE before the end of the year.

Johannes Favi spent ten months and two week in Kankakee’s Jerome Combs Detention Center. It is located one hour south from Chicago. Because he was suffering from underlying conditions that put him at greater risk of death or other health complications, he was released during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m very happy that the judge did what was right,” Favi told Truthout. He was born in Benin, West Africa. He now lives with his three children in Indianapolis, Indiana on a Work Visa. “It is time to advocate for the release of those people,” said Favi. “Families should be reunited.”

Initially, President Joe Biden came out opposing for-profit prisonsRestored the Obama-era Sally Yates memoTrump’s actions had led to the banning of federal private prisons. Biden’s administration has been disappointing for immigration leaders, as it has increased immigrant detention rates by 70% and opened a new ICE facility in Pennsylvania. These advocates have helped states pass legislation that will fight federal immigration policy.

Recently, the Maryland General Assembly voted override the governor’s veto of a similar bill prohibiting local jails from housing ICE detainees. New Jersey passed legislation banningAny new contracts between ICE, local and private prisons. Washington State passed a bill earlier this year. shutting downBy 2025, there will be no for-profit detention facilities in the state. The privately-owned GEO Group was just inaugurated. finedA federal jury awarded $23 million to a federal jury for exploiting prison labor from immigrants. A 2019 California bill has been passed that prohibits private prisons. This is the start of a legal battle ensued, with Biden’s administration siding with GEO Group.

ICE detention centers have been blocked in Illinois for the past ten years by activists. Chicago has had a long history of being home to large numbers of immigrants. It also has the second-largest Mexican immigrant population in the United States. ICE has been looking for a place nearby where it can keep its detainees. In 2019, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed HB2040, a bill. outlawing for-profit ICE facilities in Illinois. ICE has relied on anti-immigrant Sheriffs to hold detainees in county jails in McHenry County northwest of Chicago; Kankakee County an hour south; and Pulaski County in far southern Illinois.

Members of the Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract in McHenry County stand outside the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Illinois.
Outside the McHenry County Jail at Woodstock, Illinois, are members of the Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract.

These communities, along with legislators in Chicago, lobbied for the Illinois Way Forward Act. This law was passed this spring, and signed by Governor Pritzker. It prohibits local governments, among other things, from renewing or entering into contracts to imprison individuals for violating federal civil immigration laws. Begin the process of terminating their contract by January 1, 2022.

McHenry and Kankakee Counties filed a lawsuitThe state claimed that the Illinois Way Forward Act was invalid. The lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Philip G. Reinhard of the Northern District of Illinois. He was appointed by President George W. Bush. In his eight-page ruling, he mentioned the recent challenge to California’s legislation limiting ICE detention, in which a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the federal government and GEO, citing the “Supremacy Clause” of the U.S.Constitution. Judge Reinhard distinguished the California law from Illinois Way Forward, characterizing federal and state powers as a relationship of “dual sovereignty.” While states are sovereign, he stated, “counties are not.”

Fred Tsao was senior policy counsel at Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Truthout he was not surprised by the decision, saying, “The claims made by the counties were fairly weak.” The judge was clear, Tsao said, “States have authority to regulate what county jails do; it was nothing to do with federal functions.”

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally and Sheriff Bill Prim, both Republicans, released a joint statementThey stated that they were disappointed but would appeal. They called the Illinois Way Forward Act a product of one of the “most partisan and dogmatically rigid” legislatures in the state’s history. Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey appeared to have no concern for immigrant families. In a press release, Downey said detainees would not be released, but transferred to other states, “all the while forcing families of these detainees to travel much farther to visit their loved ones.” However, Kankakee jail only has video visitations; there are no in-person visits. And Favi disputed the claim that detainees would be transferred further away from families: “90 percent of detainees are not from McHenry or Kankakee, but already coming from far away.”

Trump supporter Downey has made incendiary remarks about immigrants before, calling them criminals and rapists. He responded to activists at a county board meeting. referring to immigrants as child molesters, saying, “If they really want people who commit sexual assault against 5-year-olds to get out of prison, then come out and say it.” Kankakee Board Chairman Andy Wheeler, also a Republican, said they would take the lawsuit as far as they could, “up to and including the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Johannes Favi, a Kankakee prisoner, has been a champion for other incarcerated immigrants since he was released. He sits on the boards for several organizations, including Connect Kankakee, an immigrant solidarity organisation. Connect Kankakee’s Dave Volden said that the organization has protested outside the Jerome Combs Detention Center. He also claimed that the organization used social media to attract attention and went to Springfield to lobby. He called Sheriff Downey one of the “most powerful politicians in the county.” No one was being jailed by ICE for violent criminal offenses, he said. “They are being held, often for years, for residency violations, such as entering the country without documentation.” Speaking with immigrants at the jail and their families, Volden found that, “many families, including children, are being irreparably harmed by detention while just trying to earn a living, pay their taxes, raise a family and contribute to their communities.”

The Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract in McHenry CountyReleased a statement following the judge’s decision, saying they were “overjoyed” and “celebrate with all people impacted by unjust immigration policies.” The campaign has faced several setbacks, said a leader in the coalition, Amanda Hall, who lives in Woodstock, Illinois, the county seat. In May 2021, it was hard to watch the McHenry County Board vote in favor of “institutionalized racism” and keep the contract with ICE. It was another “low point” when the county decided to file a lawsuit.

Members of the Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract in McHenry County stand outside the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock, Illinois.
Outside the McHenry County Jail at Woodstock, Illinois, are members of the Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract.

But the judge’s decision shifted the ground for the immigrant rights movement.“It’s great to know that our immigrant community doesn’t have to live in fear,” said Hall, “and doesn’t have to think of Woodstock as the last stop before Mexico.” Sandra Dávila is a teacher in Elgin, Illinois, and another leader in the coalition. “It’s beautiful to know we took part in this,” she told Truthout. “ICE activity decreases when there’s no facility.”

Activists are now focusing on what will happen in 2015 for the approximately 130 Kankakee and McHenry jail detainees. A letterMore than 60 organizations signed a petition to the Biden administration requesting the release of all ICE detainees from Illinois. They claim ICE has the power to release individuals and point out that most of them return to their court hearings. Rather than sending them far away from their home communities, the letter says, “a robust network of legal and social service providers throughout Illinois stand ready to support them.”

Pulaski County declared that it would end its contract to ICE immediately after the Illinois Way Forward Act passed. ICE granted Pulaski County a limited window to review the cases of the people being held there, and immigration organizations scrambled to build cases to their release. Only three of the prisoners were released initially. The majority were transferred to McHenry jails and Kankakee. Fred Tsao stated that they are working to prevent this from happening again. “We did not go through all the effort to pass state legislation only to see people still being detained out of state. We are already working to make sure that those people held at McHenry and Kankakee are released,” he said. “Unfortunately, ICE’s default is to transfer rather than release — so we will need longer-term cultural change at ICE to make sure that when facilities close, the people there go free.”

ICE has been trying. expandClay County is located in rural west-central Indiana. Sheriff Paul Harden, a Republican holds approximately 50 detainees in custody for ICE. He is pushing$25 million to expand the jail to accommodate 265 ICE detainees. Tsao said he is working with a group of “enthusiastic leaders” opposed to immigrant detention who have been attending county commission meetings, canvassing and pursuing public records.

Illinois State Senator Celina Villanueva (a Democrat from Chicago) reflected on the victory via an email Truthout. “This is a win for immigrant communities not only in the state, but also throughout the country,” Villanueva wrote. “Prioritizing the safety and well-being of individuals within these communities reaffirms our commitment to safeguarding their rights, which historically have been taken from them by force and through systemic oppression. I hope this court decision will act as motivation for other states to do what Illinois has done and defend their immigration populations from predatory detention contracts.”