Resolution to end McHenry County Jail's contract with ICE tabled for 30 days

County Board needs more information before voting on issue, board member Carlos Acosta says

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A decision by the McHenry County Board on whether the jail should keep its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was pushed back Thursday.

A resolution that would end the contract between was tabled, meaning the full board will not vote on the matter for another 30 days.

Having more information from county administration on the financial effect of eliminating the contract will aid the board in making an informed decision on the issue, board member Carlos Acosta said Thursday after proposing the delay.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for 16 years,” Acosta said in an interview Friday. “I want the resolution to pass, ... and we felt that the best opportunity to pass it was to delay it.”

The jail's intergovernmental agreement with ICE has been in place since 2004 and hasn't been discussed or reexamined by the board since 2014, Acosta said. Since then, he said, he has grown uncomfortable with McHenry County's complicity in profiting off of an increasingly flawed immigration
system.

“I understand we need to be fiscally responsible, but it’s like would we then start investing in tobacco stock or oil stock?” Acosta said. “The source of revenue does bother me, you know, that we’re making money off of ICE detention.”

McHenry County's contract with ICE has attracted the attention of local activist groups and community members who have called for the elimination of the agreement for humanitarian and social justice reasons.

David Bradburn, a member of Activists for Racial Equity, asked board members to look beyond the financial implications of cutting the contract to see the human cost of continuing it. His group planned to host a vigil at 8:30 p.m. Friday on the Woodstock Square, in partnership with a number of other local organizations, to call for the end of the contract.

“This is a moral issue,” Bradburn said at Thursday’s meeting. “The treatment of individuals reflects on our values, and that reflection is amplified when profits are involved.”

Eliminating the ICE contract would significantly reduce the jail’s population, which, in turn, would reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak in the facility, local immigration lawyer Amanda Garcia said during the public comment period.

Acosta said he shares in the concerns expressed by community members who have attended recent meetings. As a social worker, he said he regularly hears stories of the trauma and pain that immigrant detention has on individuals and families.

“ICE doesn’t treat their detainees well,” Acosta said. “They have become much more aggressive and coercive in the last three years and, again, on a very basic level, I just don’t think they’re a good business partner.”

The resolution to end the contract, which was proposed by Acosta and fellow board member Michael Vijuk, was voted down, 6-2, by the County Board's Law and Government Committee at the end of July.

Despite the no vote, board Chairman Jack Franks placed the resolution on the agenda for the Aug. 18 meeting so the full County Board could vote on it.

After listening to the concerns of fellow board members about the revenue that would be lost without the ICE contract, Acosta said he wanted to give the county government staff more time to complete a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the agreement.

The county is projected to lose about $5.5 million in revenue this fiscal year if the contract is not renewed, which is considerably less than the county has made from the agreement in previous years, County Administrator Peter Austin has said.

Over the past three years, the jail’s contract with ICE has brought in an average of $6.8 million a year, Austin has said.

The number of ICE detainees in the jail has dropped considerably since the beginning of the year because the coronavirus pandemic has reduced ICE activity, Acosta said.

In 2018, the jail was averaging 250 to 300 ICE detainees at one time, but today that number has fallen to about 130, he said.

Looking solely at the revenue lost is not an effective way to determine whether eliminating the contract is fiscally responsible, Acosta said. He said he wants more information about the fixed costs the jail has in meeting the contract’s requirements and how much revenue the jail needs to earn from the contract in order to break even.

“The frustrating part is we haven’t been able to really grapple with what those costs are,” he said. “That’s the information that I’m trying to get from the sheriff. ... What’s the break-even point, and at what point do we start losing money?”

For those board members who are looking at the issue from a financial perspective, having a full picture of the jail’s finances from county administration might sway them to vote in favor of discontinuing the agreement, Acosta said.

That’s why Acosta said he filed a motion to voluntarily table the resolution during Thursday morning’s Committee of the Whole meeting, meaning discussion of the matter now will take place at the County Board’s next regular meeting Sept. 15.

Before that vote, the resolution will be discussed again at the next Committee of the Whole meeting Sept. 10, and a suggestion was made to add the resolution to the agenda of the Sept. 3 Finance and Audit Committee meeting as well.