Joliet, ICE in talks for possible immigration detention center
(MCT) — Joliet officials are considering a plan to build a detention center for immigrants facing deportation, a proposal similar to one that collapsed this year under pressure from residents who didn't want the facility in south suburban Crete.
Joliet City Manager Tom Thanas attended a meeting with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials last week in Washington to discuss a proposal for a detention center, officials said. Thanas on Wednesday declined to comment on the meeting.
City Council members first heard about the proposal during a closed-door session last week, and few details were available, said Councilwoman Jan Quillman.
"I don't know enough about it at this point to offer an informed opinion," Quillman said. "My understanding is that this is all very preliminary."
City Councilman Bob O'Dekirk said council members had been briefed on the "very, very broad strokes" of the proposal.
During the City Council meeting a number of current and former industrial sites were mentioned — in vague, hypothetical terms — as possible locations, but the impact on tax revenues or jobs was not known, sources said.
ICE officials have been looking for a site near Chicago where a private company could build and operate a detention center to hold several hundred people awaiting deportation for immigration violations.
Amid outcry from skeptical residents, labor unions and immigration activists, the Crete Village Board in June unanimously voted down a proposal by Corrections Corp. of America to build a 700-bed facility on 70 acres of privately owned land.
ICE has attempted to build similar facilities, which are designed to provide more humane conditions than the local jails and prisons where deportees typically are lodged, at sites across the country.
A spokesman from the Tennessee-based corporation said the company is working with ICE and "discussions with ICE and other officials are a normal part of our ongoing due diligence."
Immigration activists rallied against the proposed Crete facility, saying federal officials need to devise an immigration policy not centered on mass deportations and that for-profit operators have less incentive to maintain humane conditions.
Similar protests are likely to follow any proposal in Joliet, said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
"We had concerns in Crete, and we would have those concerns anywhere in Illinois" that a detention center might open, Tsao said.
"I would hope city leaders in Joliet would find more creative ways to build their local economy."
Many residents in Crete were concerned that their semirural village of fewer than 9,000 residents would develop a reputation as a "prison town" if the detention center opened.
But that might be less of a concern for residents in Joliet, where Joliet Correctional Center was a major employer for more than 100 years before closing in 2002.
The Illinois Youth Center, a juvenile prison that has operated on the city's west side for more than 50 years, is slated to be shut down in a cost-cutting move later this year, idling more than 200 employees.
Even after Crete's Village Board unanimously voted down the proposed facility this spring, Corrections Corp. of America officials said they would continue to work with ICE to find a site in the Chicago area. ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said Wednesday that the agency still is looking for a site near Chicago.
O'Dekirk acknowledged that any proposal is bound to cause controversy.
"If it makes sense for Joliet, we would have to look at it," O'Dekirk said. "If you don't like the immigration policy, don't march to Joliet. March to Hyde Park (in Chicago) and go talk to the president."