New resolution to cancel McHenry County Jail’s contract with ICE voted down in committee

Resolution will be considered by second committee next Thursday; activists say action at the local level sends an important message

A new resolution to eliminate the McHenry County Jail’s agreement to house U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees was voted down by a McHenry County Board committee Tuesday morning in the latest development of a yearlong debate that considered the revenue generated by the contract alongside the moral issue some see with maintaining it.

The contract is on track to be considered by a separate committee – the board’s Finance and Audit Committee – on May 6, and if approved there, by the full McHenry County Board. Even if it fails again, McHenry County Board Chairman Mike Buehler could decide to bring it before the board regardless.

The first iteration of the resolution, introduced by Democratic board members Carlos Acosta and Michael Vijuk last summer, made it to a meeting of the full County Board for discussion, but Acosta postponed a vote on the matter at the suggestion of board member Michael Skala, a Republican. Republicans make up 16 of the 24-seat County Board.

Skala suggested that the resolution be tabled until the board’s finance committee could do a more thorough cost-benefit analysis of the contract.

Back then, the county’s finance department described the jail’s agreement with ICE as being worth anywhere from $6.8 million to $10 million – numbers that raised concerns among board members over how they would fill the hole that eliminating it would leave in the county’s budget, Acosta said.

The $10 million figure was based on how lucrative the contract was at its peak, but a declining detainee population seemed to hint at a decline in revenue for the county as well, he said.

From 2017 to 2019, the jail’s contract with ICE brought in an average of $6.8 million a year, County Administrator Peter Austin said in the 2020 meeting. For 2020, the projected revenue losses without the contract hovered around $5.5 million.

In the months that followed, Acosta said he and fellow Democrat Kelli Wegener, who sits on the board’s finance committee, delved into the available numbers around what the profitability of the contract looked like throughout its life from 2004 to the present day.

At the end of 2017, the jail was housing an average of 280 detainees. As of August 2020, that number was down to 154, Wegener said in a meeting last fall. This number dropped significantly in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county is paid $95 a day for each immigrant detainee housed in the jail and the most recent estimate of what it costs the jail to house each detainee is $22 to $52 a day, Acosta said.

Given the fixed costs that come with heating, cleaning and staffing the third floor of the McHenry County Jail, which is devoted entirely to ICE detainees, the profitability of the contract declines as the number of detainees continues to fall, Acosta said.

The most recent calculations presented before the Finance and Audit Committee at its April 8 meeting estimated that the contract generated about $3.5 million in revenue for the county and $1.5 million in revenue after costs are subtracted, he said. These numbers are still estimates as much of the jail’s costs are not broken down between jail detainees and those held on behalf of ICE.

“When you get down to $1.5 million, when [the county has] a $208 million overall budget, this isn’t really a financial discussion,” Acosta said. “It does become more of a discussion on values and who do we want to work with and what do we want to accomplish.”

While this greatly reduces size of the hole that the county would need to fill in its budget, $1.5 million is still a lot of money, Skala said.

“I am a numbers guy, and if I were to strictly look at the numbers of it, then I would definitely be a no vote,” he said. “But I am also a human being that has feelings and compassion and emotional aspects of life.”

Ultimately, he said he plans to vote ‘no’ to eliminating the contract when it comes before the finance committee as they are tasked with considering things through a strictly financial lens, but if it came to the full board it would be a tougher, more nuanced decision.

“Whether we have [the contract] or not does not solve the immigration issue, which I feel very strongly that this country needs to solve,” Skala said. “I don’t like the fact that just because someone is here illegally, they get arrested and detained. ... I feel very strongly that that is wrong.”

“We need to make policy changes that give pathways to people to become legal citizens here in this country, and we are failing miserably as a country in that area,” he said.

Board member Carolyn Schofield, a Republican who also serves as County Board vice chairwoman, said she watched Tuesday’s committee meeting closely as the discussions will play a role in informing her own decision making if the issue is brought before the full board for a vote at its May meeting.

Schofield said she agreed with points brought up by some of the board members opposing the resolution, such as Pamela Althoff, R-McHenry, who said that eliminating the jail’s contract with ICE is not really an effective target for those who want to bring about immigration reform.

“I understand their want to make change and the easiest way of doing it is putting pressure on the local level, but that’s not the most effective way of doing it,” Schofield said. The public and the County Board’s time would be better spent pushing for change at the state or federal level, she said.

Local activists, however, seem to disagree.

“We’re a microcosm of the macrocosm so if we want to actually affect change then we, as a little community in a rural part of Illinois, can speak up and can use our voices,” said Tony Bradburn, Crystal Lake resident and member of local activist group Activists for Racial Equity.

Eliminating the contract “sends a message,” Bradburn said. “There’s a ripple effect and people could use that momentum to continue to have conversations in larger spheres of influence.”

“Let’s be honest, the [federal] government doesn’t care whether McHenry County has an ICE contract or not,” Skala said in response to this line of reasoning.

Skala and Schofield pointed out that if the county decides it will no longer house detainees, those detainees won’t be released. They will be transferred to a public facility in another county or to a private, for-profit detention center.

The presence of a detention center within the county strikes fear in the hearts of immigrants on a daily basis, said Antonio Ruño, board president of the Federación de Migrantes Unidos por Veracruz, a McHenry-based organization that helps local immigrants integrate themselves within the community.

“[Local immigrants] are afraid of reporting crimes that they are victims of because they know that there is a direct track between the sheriff’s office and ICE,” said Ivan Díaz, Ruño’s translator and fellow member of Federación de Migrantes Unidos por Veracruz.

If the fear is happening locally, the action should be too, Ruño said.

Kelli Duncan

Kelli Duncan is a reporter for the Northwest Herald covering county government as well as the communities of Huntley, Lake in the Hills, Marengo and Harvard. She has previously covered local politics, immigration and feature stories.