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Dear McHenry County Board Members:

On behalf of the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), we write to express our support of the resolution to cancel the contract between the McHenry County Board and the U.S. Marshals/Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which will be considered at the May 18 County Board meeting. NIJC provides legal services to low-income immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including those detained in the McHenry County Jail and other detention centers across the country.

NIJC is opposed to ICE’s immigration detention system, a sprawling patchwork of more than 200 jails, private detention centers and prison-like complexes that costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars annually.[1] More immigration detention beds mean more families separated, lifelong trauma inflicted on individuals[2] and more communities torn apart. A reduction of the use of jails and prisons for immigrants, in favor of release and community-based alternatives to detention, would promote family unity and save taxpayers millions. There is no rational justification for the continued use of carceral settings for civil immigration processing.

This week’s vote is an opportunity for the County Board to break with a system that violates human rights and impedes due process, especially when ICE has more humane and cost-effective alternatives at its disposal.

  1. Immigration detention inherently jeopardizes people’s health and human and civil rights

People detained for immigration purposes can include asylum seekers, long-term residents with U.S. citizen family members, as well as local community members apprehended in their homes and workplaces. Individuals who are facing deportation proceedings as a result of criminal proceedings have already completed their sentence and should be able to reunite with their loved ones while their civil immigration cases proceed in the courts.

NIJC clients at McHenry frequently disclose punitive conditions including inadequate medical care, lack of nutritious food and proper hygiene products, limited telephone access, and lack of adequate programming. Diabetic clients have expressed concerns about the food they receive given their health condition. McHenry County Jail also lacks an outdoor recreation area for individuals detained at the facility. As a result, some individuals are detained for the entirety of their immigration case—often a year or more—without ever getting fresh air. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the inhumane conditions of immigration detention centers. NIJC staff had clients at McHenry who required specialist medical appointments, but because these were suspended during the pandemic they were unable to receive timely necessary care.  Often these medical appointments were for cardiac and respiratory conditions, which also made individuals more vulnerable to COVID. In recent months, the McHenry County Jail has faced numerous COVID outbreaks resulting in lockdowns that severely limited individuals’ ability to maintain contact with the outside world, resulting in conditions akin to solitary confinement. Individuals in quarantined blocks were confined to their cells for all but one hour every two days.  This was not sufficient time to shower, or call family members and attorneys. Although McHenry County Jail offered vaccinations in March 2021, as of May 17, 2021, ICE is still reporting positive COVID-19 cases at McHenry. Moreover, individuals have reported receiving no educational material regarding vaccination, and it is unclear whether the county has a plan to promptly offer vaccinations to new arrivals, raising significant concerns about future outbreaks at the jail. 

  1. ICE’s immigration detention system is rife with due process abuses

ICE holds thousands of people daily in civil immigration detention, without appointed counsel and often without access to bond hearings.[3] Federal immigration law provides a right to counsel for immigrants facing removal proceedings, but there is no right to court-appointed counsel.[4]  It is widely recognized that immigration law is highly complex and immigration cases often raise issues of life and death.[5] Although the Immigration and Nationality Act provides a right to counsel, this right is only realized for those who can afford a lawyer or who can secure pro bono counsel. Studies have shown that nationally, fewer than 20% of all immigrants in detention are able to find counsel.[6] Many factors contribute to this due process crisis, including the complexity of detained removal defense, the intensive resources necessary to mount an effective defense for an individual detained far from relevant witnesses and evidence, and the remote location of many ICE facilities.[7] For individuals who are unable to afford counsel, access to the outside world is critical for evidence gathering and case preparation. Yet in detention, people have limited access to free telephone calls and often pay exorbitant rates to private phone companies to communicate with family and community members.

Moreover, given the complexity of immigration law and backlogs in immigration courts, immigrants typically spend excessive periods of time in immigration custody, often without access to custody hearings. NIJC often represents individuals who have spent a year or more in ICE custody, including at McHenry County Jail, and assists individuals in challenging prolonged periods of detention through federal habeas corpus petitions. Federal judges continue to find that ICE violates immigrants’ due process rights by subjecting them to prolonged and indefinite detention.

  1. Less costly and more humane alternatives to detention exist

The primary purpose of immigration detention is to ensure that noncitizens appear in their immigration court proceedings. Yet, studies have shown that alternatives to detention, including community-based case management programs, cost taxpayers less than detention and are effective in ensuring that participants comply with obligations imposed by courts or agencies.[8] Many communities have already developed smart models for a better and more humane way to support immigrants during case processing, including robust yet underfunded programs in Illinois which offer a national model.[9] The hundreds of millions of tax dollars that are currently funding the immigrant detention system can be better invested in communities and in alternative community-based models that allow immigrants to remain with their loved ones while their civil immigration cases are pending.

For these reasons, we urge the County Board to vote in favor of cancelling its contract with ICE for immigration detention services at the McHenry County Jail.

Please direct any response or inquiries to:

Ruben Loyo, NIJC Associate Director of Detention

Julián Lazalde, NIJC Civic Engagement & Policy Analyst



Mary Meg McCarthy
Executive Director
National Immigrant Justice Center


[1] Aida Chavez, “‘No One Will Believe Baboon Complaints’ - Racist Abuse in Immigration Detention on the Rise in Trump Era, Report Says,” the Intercept, June 26, 2018, See also, Eunice Cho, Tara Tidwell Cullen, and Clara Long, Justice-Free Zones: U.S. Immigration Detention Under The Trump Administration, National Immigrant Justice Center, ACLU, & HRW, April 30, 2020,

[2] American Immigration Council, “U.S. citizen children impacted by immigration enforcement,” March 28, 2017,

[3] See Heidi Altman, “5 Reasons to End Immigrant Detention,” National Immigrant Justice Center, September 14, 2020,

[4] 8 USC 1362

[5] Dana Leigh Marks (June 26, 2014). “Immigration judge: Death penalty cases in a traffic court setting.” CNN, 

[6] Ingrid Eagly, Esq. and Steven Shafer, Esq. (September 2016). “Access to Counsel in Immigration Court.” American Immigration Council, Washington, DC,

[7] Kyle Kim (September 28, 2017). “Immigrants held in remote ICE facilities struggle to find legal aid before they’re deported.” Los Angeles Times,  

[8] For a review of the existing literature on ATDs, see American Immigration Lawyers Association et al., “The Real Alternatives to Detention,” June 27, 2017,

[9] David Secor, Heidi Altman and Tara Tidwell Cullen, Community-Based Programming as an Alternative to Immigrant Incarceration, National Immigrant Justice Center, (April 2019).