A day many local activists have hoped for arrives Saturday when Illinois law requires McHenry County’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to end and the county jail is no longer home to people in ICE custody.
State lawmakers passed the Illinois Way Forward Act at the end of May, which prohibits Illinois counties from entering into agreements with ICE to house federal detainees at the county jail starting Jan. 1. Despite the county’s efforts in court to block the law, ICE will be required to move all of its detainees out of McHenry County and Illinois by Saturday.
“We will work with ICE to facilitate their needs to ensure a successful transition of their detainees to another facility,” McHenry County Sheriff Chief of Corrections Michael Clesceri said in a statement. “Our intention is to comply with the law and its directives.”
The state law came after attempts earlier this year by County Board Democrats to end the contract, along with several communities’ protests pushing for detainees to be released. The County Board voted to continue the contract, however.
As of Dec. 27, 61 people in the county jail were being detained by ICE, according to the sheriff’s office. As of Dec. 22, ICE had space for 390 detainees available in Illinois, but did not respond to questions about how many people still were in custody in Illinois.
“Detainees in transit from one facility to another institution or jurisdiction will be transported in a safe and humane manner under the supervision of trained and experienced personnel,” the agency said in a statement.
“ICE understands that detainees may have ties to the community and a support network near the location that they are detained, and ICE takes that into account when moving to a new facility to keep them as close as possible to their support network,” the agency said.
ICE did not specifically address where those detained in McHenry County would be moved or how they would be transferred, and did not provide any information about the people currently in custody in McHenry County.
Days before ICE’s contract with the county was set to end, around 20 people gathered outside McHenry County Jail for a candlelight vigil.
Singing “Silent Night,” the group held up signs calling for the abolishment of ICE as a whole, and an end to federal deportations.
Among the group was Cesar Elizarraraz, a Crystal Lake resident who said he spent 21 months detained at McHenry County Jail’s immigration detention center before being released in June. Elizarraraz said the mental, emotional and financial impacts to detainees and their families is indescribable.
“Just imagine having your freedom taken away and having no control over every aspect of your everyday life,” he said at the vigil. Holidays were especially hard, Elizarraraz said, as he had to be separated from loved ones.
“I am here today because so many people like you stood up to say ‘no’ to deportations, ‘no’ to detention and ‘no’ to the inhumane immigration system in this country,” he told those at the vigil.
Juana and Jairo Elizarraraz, Cesar’s sister and brother, respectively, said their sibling’s detention took a toll on their whole family, as well as Cesar’s own kids.
“Him being in there, it was just the worst thing ever for our family,” Juana Elizarraraz said.
It was heartbreaking, Jairo Elizarraraz said, to only be able to interact with Cesar during 20-minute phone calls.
“He [told] me he was just hopeless sometimes,” Jairo Elizarraraz said. “But he’s a strong man.”
With Cesar’s release, Jairo Elizarraraz said, the family that was once incomplete without his brother now is able to find some normalcy.
“We try to make every day count,” Juana Elizarraraz said.
During the vigil, attendees waved to those being detained at the jail, a few of whom waved back.
Sandy Choreno, an attendee at the vigil, said it made her sad to see the detainees in their current situation.
While those at the vigil likely would go home to a warm dinner with their families, those being detained “are here in a cold place with nobody,” she said.
But knowing that the detainees could see the support they were getting on the outside warmed Choreno’s heart.
The end to McHenry County’s agreement with ICE, Choreno said, showed her people can make changes to their community if they are willing to fight for it.
Jairo Elizarraraz said the cancellation of ICE’s contract with the county is a step forward.
Hopefully soon, the people being held in McHenry County Jail’s immigration detention center will be able to go back to their normal lives, Jairo Elizarraraz said.
Local activists who have fought for the contract to end say there are a variety of reasons someone might be detained by ICE, including for crimes or issues with their immigration status.
“Historically the population held at McHenry has been a mixed bag,” said Amanda Garcia, a Crystal Lake resident and member of the Coalition to Cancel the ICE Contract in McHenry County. “Some people, their immigration status is not complete. Some people do have legal status, they have visas or green cards, but if ICE thinks for some reason they’re deportable, ICE can detain them.”
Advocates say they want the end of the county’s contract with ICE to also mean the end of detention for many people in ICE’s custody.
“ICE has the authority to release anyone in their custody,” Garcia said.
With McHenry and Kankakee Counties as the only two jails in Illinois that act as an ICE detention center, the people being housed in McHenry County are from a variety of places.
“A very small number of detainees in McHenry County are actually from McHenry County,” Acosta said “You’re going to be looking at only a handful of people that are local. A vast majority aren’t from the county. That’s not to say they shouldn’t have an opportunity to be released into their home community.”
Moving people away from their families has been an argument against the Illinois Way Forward Act.
“If we lose that contract, the people that are in there that are possibly from McHenry County are going to be moved to a facility possibly much further away from their family than they currently are,” County Board Chairman Mike Buehler, R-Crystal Lake, said in an interview last month.
Acosta said that is a weak argument.
“That argument rings hollow given that most of the people there have already been moved from their families,” he said, adding that inmates also have been restricted from seeing their families in-person during the pandemic.
With the contract ending, so is one of the county’s revenue streams. ICE pays the county $95 a day for each detainee, which in some years has added up to more than $9 million in revenue for the county. However, that revenue also has dropped recently. The county received $3.6 million from ICE in 2021, according to county Chief Financial Officer Kevin Bueso, and expects to receive about $360,000 this month for the final detainees.
Board member Kelli Wegener, D-Crystal Lake, said when costs associated with detaining people for ICE are factored in, she believes the profit for the county is even less.
Earlier this month a federal judge ruled against McHenry County’s lawsuit to block the Illinois Way Forward Act from taking effect. The county argued that counties had the independence to engage in contracts with the federal government without state approval. However, the judge ruled that states have the right to restrict which contracts local governments can enter.
“The General Assembly, in the final day of session, rammed through a flawed, unconstitutional and overreaching bill for the sole purpose of making a political statement that it disagrees with existing federal immigration policy,” Buehler said in a statement after the lawsuit was struck down.
McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally is appealing the lawsuit, but said the county will move forward to meet the state’s Jan. 1 deadline even if a ruling on the lawsuit has not been made.
“My frustration is as long as the lawsuit is pending there is still that question and it’s frustrating and concerning to certain members of the community that it will get struck down,” Acosta said. “It’s highly unlikely, but it keeps that open wound open even after the detainees have left.”
There is hope the contract’s end is a part of a larger step in immigration policy in the U.S.
“It is my hope that other states will do the same as Illinois and cancel these contracts and our country will find a better and cheaper immigration system,” Wegener said.