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McHenry and Kankakee Counties in Illinois openly admit to profiting off the detention of immigrants in a recent lawsuit challenging the Illinois Way Forward Act. The legislation — signed this year — forces these counties to terminate their contracts with ICE to detain immigrants in county facilities.

In the lawsuit, two county sheriffs testify to using federal taxpayer dollars intended for care of the immigrant individuals in their detention to benefit other aspects of county governance all while the immigrant individuals detained in Kankakee and McHenry counties continue to suffer from inhumane conditions and neglectful medical care. NIJC recently received data from McHenry County confirming this testimony--showing that the county only uses 27 to 55% of the federal dollars it receives via contract on the care of those in federal detention in county facilities.

When Congress authorized ICE to contract with local counties, it was explicit that those funds go toward care of those in detention. Congress legislated that such federal money be used: “for necessary clothing, medical care, necessary guard hire, and the housing, care, and security of persons detained.” The counties’ contracts with ICE furthermore explicitly define the services arising from the contracts to be for the “housing, safekeeping, and subsistence” of people in immigration detention including for costs of medical, dental, and mental health care.

Despite this clear statutory and contract language, both counties allege that they will suffer broad financial harm from termination of contracts, emphasizing that they use federal dollars for general county services beyond the terms of their contract. The $41 million per year generated by the detention of 240 individuals per day is so critical to funding various aspects of McHenry County government that without it, “the county will need to increase the amount of tax collected to offset the loss or make budgetary cuts,” says Sheriff Bill Prim in a declaration filed in the lawsuit. In Kankakee County, the loss of the nearly $16 million generated by the detention of 122 individuals will also likely lead to “budgetary cuts,” says Sheriff Michael Downey.

Federal money is allocated to McHenry and Kankakee counties on a per diem basis—with a dollar amount attached to each person in ICE custody held by the county. Each month the county requests the appropriate amount of federal funds by sending an invoice to ICE with the number of people in ICE custody multiplied by the per diem amount agreed to in their contracts. In other words, the number of those detained and the estimated cost of their individual needs determine the amount of federal taxpayer dollars the counties receive under their contracts.

Yet, troubling data received through a local records request from McHenry County reveal that in fact the county improperly profits off its contract with ICE. The county receives a per diem of $95 for each person in ICE custody, but spends only $25.55 to $52.42 per day in costs related to each of those individual's custody and care. This gives the county a profit margin of 45% to 73%. Spending those profits to subsidize other county government services, as the sheriff’s declaration suggests is the case in McHenry, is an improper use of federal tax dollars.

Meanwhile, individuals in immigration detention in these counties suffer under deleterious conditions--underscoring the misuse of federal funds that were intended for their care. Both Kankakee’s Jerome Combs Detention Center and the McHenry County Jail which house individuals in federal immigration detention--demonstrate a failure to comply even with ICE’s least protective detention standards, especially when it comes to medical services.

In Jerome Combs, a 2019 survey reported that detained individuals went over three months without running water in their sinks, and no hot water in the showers. Just this year, NIJC obtained grievance forms from the facility showing a lack of basic hygiene at the facility, and an inspection report showing that Kankakee was deficient in its suicide prevention program and related medical services. U.S. House Representative Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and other Chicago-area elected officials conducted a surprise visit to the facility in 2019, stating that individuals there “lack access to basic needs every human deserves regardless of citizenship.”

Similarly, internal records related to McHenry County Jail’s response to COVID-19 show that the facility ordered the use of protective gear for staff, while people detained at that time shared testimony that the jail failed to provide. Prior to COVID-19, the jail’s failure to adopt the basic public health protections resulted in a mumps outbreak among people in ICE custody. Around this same time, a man detained in the jail died from a brain bleed related to alcohol withdrawal even though the staff was on notice of his history of alcohol consumption. Jail medical staff neglected to monitor him and waited seven hours to hospitalize him after he demonstrated withdrawal symptoms. In 2018, 21 people detained in the facility launched a hunger strike in response to insufficient food options and mistreatment by guards. In August 2020, the jail failed its ICE-ERO Office of Detention Oversight Inspection, which recorded 12 deficiencies spanning a broad range of violations of key detention conditions standards. These types of deleterious conditions are not unique to McHenry and Kankakee Counties; ICE’s detention system has an extensively documented history of egregious conditions including lack of basic hygienic products, inadequate and rotten food, physical and sexual abuse, exposure to toxic chemicals, and medical abuse and neglect."

McHenry and Kankakee Counties are just two of more than 100 counties nationwide (according to a January 2021 GAO report) contracting with ICE to detain individuals in immigrant proceedings. The Illinois Way Forward Act will require the counties to terminate these contracts in 2022 as a way to protect immigrant communities within the state from the trauma and the economic harms of deportation and detention.

But ICE detention contracts continue to offer counties nationwide perverse incentives to improperly increase their shrinking budgets through the detention of immigrants. A county in Indiana has been scheming to pay for a costly $25 million expansion of one of its county jails by locking up more immigrants who will no longer be allowed to be detained in Illinois. NIJC continues to call on the Biden administration to end the use of immigration detention entirely, beginning with a termination of contracts with private prisons and county jails.

NIJC alongside other organizations including Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants, Connect Kankakee, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), Organized Communities Against Deportation, and Southern Illinois Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project recently filed an amicus brief in support of the Illinois Attorney General in this lawsuit brought by McHenry and Kankakee counties. The brief and accompanying open records documents shed light on McHenry and Kankakee Counties’ improper use of federal dollars and profit motivations.