Sheriff Gary Caruana nixes plan to house ICE detainees

By Jim Hagerty

DOWNTOWN — Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana knew two things when he was considering a plan to house immigration detainees in the county jail as part of an agreement with the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

He was going to thoroughly vet the proposal and present it to the Winnebago County Board for final approval, and he had a list of conditions he required ICE to meet. Caruana was in the process of doing the first, working closely with Winnebago County Board Chairman Frank Haney and other area leaders. Federal immigration officials, however, could not meet his terms, so the sheriff scrapped the idea.

“My decision was based on facts and my word,” Caruana said. “I had five stipulations and (ICE) could not meet the criteria–the categories that I stipulated.”

According to Caruana, those stipulations were:

  • The sheriff would have full control of the program and there would no changes to local law enforcement;
  • Civil detainees would not be detained here, only those charged with mid- to high-level felonies;
  • A 30-day out clause be in place in case the the county wants to close the detention center;
  • Profits from the program would be used to fund public safety projects; and
  • The program would be monitored by the community and county board through transparent reports.

Amid considerable blowback from Winnebago County’s Latino community and others, Caruana crunched numbers for several weeks and contended that by housing as many as 128 federal ICE detainees, the county could see about $3 million a year after expenses. For a cash-strapped county in cash-strapped Illinois, it was a welcomed reprieve.

He spent the last several weeks assuring the public that an ICE detention center would not mean his officers would be out looking for undocumented immigrants. In fact, one of his conditions was that civil detainees would not be held here, only felons or those accused of mid- to high-level crimes.

Winnebago County State’s Attorney Joe Bruscato and Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara both spoke against the partnership largely because of potential setbacks in local relations with minorities. Activist Rudy Valdez, a strong voice of the Latino community, cited civil and economic problems with it. Valdez, who ran against McNamara for mayor, said the plan would have likely netted around $467,000 – not the millions the sheriff was set to sell to the board.

“Since 2014, the monthly number of inmates has varied from 645 to 907 in the 1318-bed Winnebago County jail,” Valdez said in a letter to The Times.

If those averages remained constant, the jail capacity may have only reached 61 percent. In other words, Valdez said the sheriff’s projections were made on the assumption that all 128 beds would be full 365 days per year.

Before halting the plan, Caruana was in the process of looking to McHenry County, where part of its jail houses ICE detainees. There, the facility has room for 250 ICE-inmates but houses an average of 160 detainees per year.

Crimes not being reported

Throughout the country, the number of Hispanics afraid to report crimes out of fear of deportation is on the rise. Some police departments are seeing the number of reported sexual assaults in the Latino community drop by more than 40 percent since the first of the year. Robberies and aggravated assaults are down by more than 10 percent.

Although it is not something area police agencies are authorized to do, in some areas, ICE has made arrests at courthouses, namely in border states. But, ICE officers are in Rockford and as nationwide immigration-related arrests increase, there is a lot of misinformation out there, and Hispanics are leery, a reason the sheriff did not want to house civil detainees.

Caruana also required a 30-day out clause written into the plan, profits from the program to go toward public safety projects, the detention center monitored by the community and county board, and that he maintain full control of the jail.

It’s ‘his jail’

“(These were) must-haves early on when the sheriff started to research this process,” Haney said. “We formulated that in that first month. From the initial forum about a month ago, (the sheriff) was very clear and up front. No. 1, is that this is his jail, and it would house folks that met his standards and the community’s standards and that we not have civil detainees.”

Haney called the sheriff’s process open, thoughtful and transparent.

“He took his time to vet and get to the facts. It has been an emotional couple weeks and we want our community engaged. The sheriff did his due diligence and was true to his word that this would have been, had he recommended it, a (county) board decision. This was about a process that included feedback from our community but ultimately, that once they helped shape these five (conditions), it was ICE that could not meet these minimum standards, so there is no agreement.”

A protest turned into a celebration as hundreds gathered at the corner of Elm and Church streets after the sheriff made the announcement. Some people danced and sang along with a DJ, while others socialized to the sounds of a live Mariachi band. R.

This story has been updated.

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