An immigrant detention center in the Winnebago County jail could help solve the county’s budget troubles. It could also seriously damage the relationships between local law enforcement and immigrant communities.
Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana says he was approached by federal immigration enforcement officials a couple of weeks ago about using a portion of the county jail. The county could house immigrants with felonies awaiting deportation and others seeking asylum, earning 80 dollars per inmate per day from the federal government. Caruana held a public meeting Monday at the YWCA Northwestern Illinois in Rockford to address rumors and get input.
Most of the crowd, which was limited to 110 attendees, opposed the proposal, including Mary Lou Castro. “We’re not cattle to be rounded up and to be counted as heads for money," she says. "That’s not the issue.” The issue? Planting fear in immigrant communities. She says living in a “peaceful, tranquil city” is more important than the money a detention facility could bring.
Caruana says the idea that local undocumented people would be swept into the jail is false, adding, “We aren’t rounding up anybody. We are doing business as usual on the street protecting the people, making sure have good solid integrity law enforcement.”
Caruana says no private contractors would be brought in to guard the federal inmates: It would be his own corrections officers. He says he’s currently short-staffed; he has 160 corrections officers in the jail but needs 185. He says housing the federal immigration inmates could easily pay for the 25 additional officers.
Jay Ware opposes the proposal for a lot of reasons. For one, he says he trusts Caruana to run an above-board facility, but worries about how future sheriffs might handle a deal with federal immigration officials. Ware also says he thinks the jail is too big, and immigrants shouldn’t have to pay for past planning mistakes. He says “the goal of the jail is not to be full but to be empty.”
Tito Cevallos is a minister who says he is trying to deal with the fears of many in his congregation, which were intensified when rumors started about this proposal for the jail. He says the detention center is a business that is hurting his community spiritually and emotionally, criminalizing humans for profit.
State Rep. John Cabello spoke briefly to the crowd at the end of the forum, telling them that this proposal will not lead to officers going door-to-door looking for undocumented immigrants. He added that concerned non-citizens can relieve their fears by becoming legal immigrants. That earned some boos from the audience. Several members of the public had made similar comments earlier in the evening in support of the detention center and received similar responses.
A regional representative from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, attended the hearing but was unable to answer most questions, such as what type of felonies would qualify an inmate for housing in a federal detention block at the county jail.
Winnebago County Board chair Frank Haney says it’s early in the discussion and everyone is still learning. “One of the things emerging is we have work to do in communication as a community as to what the realities are facing undocumented residents in our community, regardless and separate from this situation,” he says.
Sheriff Caruana says the jail has about 500 empty beds, but he is only looking at offering up to 128 to ICE. He says he will continue to study the issue and decide within the next few weeks whether to pursue the contract.