Contract between McHenry County, ICE officials in talks for cancellation advances in split vote

McHenry County Board to consider the cancellation of ICE contract after committee approval Thursday

McHenry County Board members Carlos Acosta, left, and Kelli Wegener speak to a crowd of about 80 attendees at a rally to end McHenry County's contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Woodstock.

Questions about finances and morality were among those weighing on a McHenry County committee confronted Thursday by nearly a dozen people raising concerns about a contract between the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

So much so that the County Board’s Finance and Audit Committee voted to move a resolution that would end the housing of federal immigration detainees at the McHenry County Jail forward to the County Board’s Committee of the Whole for consideration.

The panel’s decision wasn’t unanimous, however. The resolution drew some opposition, with board members Jeff Thorsen, Tom Wilbeck and Michael Skala voting against it.

None of the three commented during Thursday’s meeting about why they voted no, but Skala told the Northwest Herald last week that he planned to vote against eliminating the contract when it came before the finance committee because members of that committee are tasked with considering things through a strictly financial lens.

If the issue came to the full board, he said, it would be a tougher, more nuanced decision.

The resolution previously was voted down by a different McHenry County Board committee last week.

The contract has become a regular topic among residents and community members at public meetings, with protests rotating through McHenry County communities. Some people acknowledged that ending the ICE contract won’t resolve immigration issues in the country but said doing so would be a starting point.

Attendees listen to speakers as some wrap themselves in a thin mylar sheet as symbolism and in solidarity with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees who are issued the same thin blankets while in custody. About 80 people were in attendance at the rally to end McHenry County's contract with ICE on Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Woodstock.

Amanda Hall, a Woodstock resident and community organizer who is part of the Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract in McHenry County, urged the panel to support the resolution, saying the county has the power to make a difference.

“I ask you today to put our immigrant community first over your dwindling profit margins gained from this contract,” Hall said. “To look at our community and understand that by continuing this contract, you are linking ourselves to all of the other detention centers. There is no separation.”

The coalition currently has more than two dozen members, organizers said.

“You are making our county complicit in the system,” Hall said. “Not only that, but the money you are taking is stained in the suffering that you continue to participate in.”

The county’s finance department originally had described the jail’s agreement with ICE as being worth anywhere from $6.8 million to $10 million, but subsequent reviews determined that there was less revenue because of the declining detainee population. For 2020, the county would have lost out on about $5.5 million in 2020 without the contract, more recent estimates found.

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

Board member Carlos Acosta, who introduced the resolution, said he can appreciate some of the County Board’s discussion on this topic, but he believes that somewhere along the way you have to draw a line in the sand.

“You can’t say that you oppose a broken detention system that dehumanizes and traumatizes immigrant families and then vote to keep McHenry County as part of that broken system that dehumanizes and traumatizes immigrant families,” Acosta said.

The McHenry County Board’s Committee of the Whole is set to weigh in next. Its next meeting is May 13.