More than 60 community organizations, social service agencies, and legal service providers in Illinois sent a letter to the Biden administration today calling for the release of everyone still in immigration detention in Illinois county jails. The Illinois Way Forward Act, signed into law in August 2021, requires all counties in the state to initiate the termination of their contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by January 1, 2022. The administration must begin the process of releasing people in the Kankakee Jerome Combs Detention Center and McHenry County Jail, where an estimated 130 people are still held in ICE detention.
A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit filed by McHenry and Kankakee counties to stop the Illinois Way Forward Act from going into effect. The judge affirmed that it is an appropriate use of the state’s authority to prohibit counties from participating in federal regulatory programs, such as immigration detention. The decision is important for other states taking action to phase out immigration detention, such as Maryland, where the state legislature voted to override their governor’s veto this week and passed legislation to end the remaining ICE contracts in the state by June 2022.
The Illinois organizations call on the Biden administration to respect the letter and spirit of the Illinois Way Forward Act, and allow people to return to their communities and families when the jail contracts are terminated, rather than transfer them to other detention facilities where they risk facing continued abuses. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has the full authority to immediately release every person held in ICE custody in McHenry and Kankakee counties. It is particularly appropriate for the agency to use this discretion when local governments have decided to end their detention contracts with ICE, and even more so as a highly transmissible new COVID variant has started to spread across the country.
The decision to end immigration detention in Illinois was the result of years of advocacy by community members and people directly impacted by the ICE detention system. In August, our organizations welcomed the decision to stop holding people in ICE detention in the Pulaski County Detention Center in far southern Illinois, which had a history of neglect and abusive practices. Kankakee and McHenry County jails also are marred by records of abuse and impunity, including deficient medical services and poor hygiene.
The abuses immigrants have experienced in Illinois jails are present throughout the ICE detention system, including other Midwestern jails that contract with ICE in Boone County, Kentucky and Clay County, Indiana. The Clay County Jail failed its ICE inspection in May 2021 due to substandard conditions; another consecutive failed inspection will force ICE to end its contract with this jail. Still, Clay County officials are seeking to expand the facility under the false assumption that ICE detention will pay for the $20 million project.
It is imperative for the Biden administration to release people currently in ICE custody in Illinois and allow them to continue their immigration cases in their communities, where they have access to legal services and other support. Today’s letter shows that a robust network of legal and social service providers throughout Illinois stand ready to support them.