Finances, fear surround county ICE proposal

By Jim Hagerty 

ROCKFORD – The debate continues in the United States whether jailing undocumented immigrants is a way toward smart reform.

At fore of the argument is whether programs to house detainees for the federal government unduly criminalizes the act of entering the United States without proper documentation. Some say the act is a matter of civil law and should be treated accordingly.

But, it’s a federal misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail.

Sheriff Gary Caruana’s interest in partnering with U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use the Winnebago County Jail as an immigration detention center has more to do with generating revenue for the county. According to sources though, there would be little financial incentive for the program to make sense.

Caruana told about 110 people at a community forum last month that the jail currently houses federal detainees and has room for 128 more two vacant cell blocks.

The partnership could generate around $3.7 million in revenue, enough to pay as many as 25 additional guards. But, sources say utilities and other costs could reach as much $3.3 million, leaving only around $400,000 for county coffers.

That brings up a social aspect of the program and whether a paltry $400,000 is worth ills that could come with rounding up and jailing undocumented immigrants. With some Hispanics afraid to report crimes out of fear of racial profiling, opening ICE detention centers could exacerbate an already growing uncertainty among minorities across the country.

Caruana said the majority of undocumented detainees in the Winnebago County’s center would be transferred here from border states and Mexico, and not drummed up locally. Currently, local law enforcement agencies are not in the business of actively enforcing immigration laws. Patrols are centered on regional public safety. Immigration is the job of federal officials via the U.S. Marshals Service.

The county ICE center would house immigrants charged with crimes, however, something enforcement officials say would coincide with local measures already in place. New policies would not be created to target ethnic groups.

“I guarantee you (arrests) are going to be of a criminal nature, not just crossing the border,” Caruana said at the forum. He said detainees housed in the ICE portion of the jail would be chosen by his department.

It is early in the process, and members of the Winnebago County Board have not been informed of the actual economic impact of the proposal. Leader say they will know more when the Finance Committe gets details from the sheriff.

Until then, the most significant challenge is fear, and not just trepidation from one side of the issue.

“Sadly, (the) fear comes from the actions of a select number of criminals that have selfishly given many peaceful immigrants bad names,” County Board member Eli Nicolosi, R-8, said. “This fear has also made our nation justifiably terrified about our borders with increased drug trafficking, terrorism and crime. In general, fear has made the entire conversation toxic.”

And as long as the conversation about illegal immigration centers on what’s happening on the national level, how a local program would impact the county may not be properly addressed.

“We need to look at our neighbors in McHenry County closely to see how it’s working out over there,” Nicolosi said. “If this can help, we must give it serious consideration. When (and if) Sheriff Caruana presents something to our board, we will do our best to do just that and stay focused on what’s best for our community.”

In a partnership with ICE, the McHenry County Jail in Woodstock is one of two Chicagoland immigration detention centers. Most of its approximately 200 detainees are natives of Latin America, China and Southeast Asia.

Calls for comment to other county board members were not immediately returned.

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