Efforts to halt the construction of a 1200-bed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Dwight, Illinois continue at both the state and local level. The proposed facility would be built and operated by the Virginia-based, for-profit prison company Immigration Centers of America (ICA). Although the village approved the annexation of land for the project in March, the final paperwork has yet to be completed, and human rights groups across the Midwest continue to work to bring attention to the economic, moral and legal concerns about the proposed facility in hopes that the village will ultimately reject the project.
UIUCAyuda, an organization founded last year to give voice to the Latinx student community concerned with the inadequate federal response to hurricane damage in Puerto Rico, has planned a series of visits to the Dwight during the summer months. By reaching out to community groups, including churches, teachers, and service organizations at venues like the weekly farmer’s market, they hope to share information on the poor track record that for-profit prisons have in contributing to the local economy.
For-profit prison corporations, for example, have a history of bringing in their own construction and employment teams, raising worries that little money will ultimately flow back into the local economy. In addition, the negative connotations of an ICE prison in town may deter other investors from exploring opportunities in the area, and even lower home prices.
The Dwight community already has some economic unease with the proposed project. At the village board meeting in March, some speakers expressed concern that the village will bear the costs for upgrading the infrastructure to support the prison, while the exact numbers and mechanisms for repayment from ICA are still murky. Another speaker noted that employees who worked for ICA’s Farmville, VA facility gave it only two out of five stars on Indeed.com, complaining of “intimidation tactics,” among other problems in the work environment. And should the federal government alter its detention policy, there are no provisions for who will be responsible for an abandoned, single-use facility within the town limits.
Ayuda also plans to bring material that will help residents understand the larger issue of how the detention of individuals solely for documentation issues tears apart families. This is both a moral and economic issue that leaves local communities to bear the costs of helping children and other family members, who may be U.S. citizens, survive when the breadwinner is imprisoned. And the families aren’t the only ones affected: many farming communities like Dwight are highly dependent on laborers who may have undocumented family members. The presence of an ICE facility in central Illinois could have a chilling effect on the regional labor market, as even those who are documented may worry about racial profiling.
Ayuda is optimistic that there are many in the community who are concerned with both the ICE facility and the lack of transparency in town government on the issue. Although the mayor previously boasted that he had been in negotiations with ICA for two years and had even visited its Farmville prison, the issue was only introduced to the village board agenda in February, leaving little time for discussion. The non-elected Dwight Economic Alliance appeared to have had more access to information on the issue than did the village board or the residents of Dwight. This is a critical issue which will affect the reputation and economics of the village for decades, and deserves a thorough community discussion. And of course it is a regional and national issue as well, which explains the high level of outside interest in the proposed detention center.
At the state level, a different strategy to block the construction of the prison led to state senators passing HB 2040 on May 17. If the bill is signed by Governor Pritzker, state and local government agencies would be prohibited from contracting with a private entity for the detention of individuals facing deportation proceedings. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how this legislation would affect federal contracts, an issue that may eventually lead to a court case in one of the increasing number of states that are attempting to ban privately-run ICE prisons. Opponents of the Dwight facility support the passage of HB 2040, but hope that activists will remain committed to bringing publicity to the situation in Dwight. The combination of legislation and local pressure may convince ICA to abandon the Dwight project, as it has in other areas where it has found a hostile legislative and public relations environment.