I grew up in a small unincorporated area outside of Woodstock, Illinois that is dotted with horse, dairy, and buffalo farms. Woodstock’s claim to fame is its quaint little square in the center of town that drew the producers of the 1993 film Groundhog Day to make this town the filming location for scenes set in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of the legendary weather-predicting rodent.
I moved to Chicago in my twenties, as many young people do, seeking an urban center filled with cultural events and new experiences, and while here, I made a career transition from law to education. When I started teaching in a neighborhood Chicago Public Schools high school that was 90% Latinx, I immersed myself in the events that affected my students, their families, and their communities. After Trump’s election, my attention increased as we ran ICE drills and distributed so-called “bust cards” in multiple languages that outline people’s rights in the event they are arrested. Last summer, I joined 60,000 other people in Daley Plaza protesting these policies, and I have written articles and spoken with hundreds of people about immigration issues. Although I left teaching last August, I find myself still focused on Chicago and its role on the national and international stage as Trump has frequently attacked my city for its sanctuary city status, among other things. In retrospect, I should have paid closer attention to some of the lower-profile issues.
There are three major ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention centers in Illinois: Ullion and Mt. Vernon in the southern part of the state, and Woodstock, northwest of Chicago and in the northeast part of the state. I probably never would have learned about this but for dinner with a friend of mine who related a story about her friend who was detained by ICE and transferred from her arrest point near the US/Mexico border to the McHenry County Jail. Her friend deserves the space to tell her own story, and I am not going to try to recreate the story from what I was told except in brief to show you the extent of people’s suffering. She applied for asylum and ultimately ended up having her application granted. In the middle of the night, with no warning, the sheriff’s personnel loaded her into a white prison bus with two people who were being deported, and they dumped her outside in winter with inadequate clothing, flip-flops that were several sizes too big, and no money or personal possessions, not even her cell phone. Consider this for a minute — the loss of money and possessions like cell phones or even personal identification cards and paperwork. Imagine living through hell back in your home country, fleeing to the north to apply for asylum, being arrested, losing all your personal effects, and ultimately after your case is granted, being thrown outside without even the basics to take care of yourself. We live our lives on our mobile devices. Most of us can’t even tell you their loved ones’ numbers from memory because they are in the contacts list. Add severe trauma to that, and likely very few people would be able to recall any phone numbers, even if they had once been memorized. The Department of Homeland Security implemented a policy that it claims is designed to assure a greater percentage of people receive their personal items back after detention, but it turns out that there has been no change in this number.
I found myself profoundly disturbed at the thought of “back home” profiting from the heartbreak and human rights violations of asylum-seekers and undocumented immigrants, so I researched the situation. I didn’t want to believe it was true — but it was true. McHenry County Jail has had a contract with the federal government to house detainees since 2005, renewing a ten-year contract in 2014. According to the Sun-Times, at the end of 2018, the contract brought in $10 million, up from $8.3 million in 2017. This ends up being about $95 per day, per person. The county makes additional money from the feds through transportation of detainees, often in buses such as the one I mentioned above. The money from ICE goes into a larger county fund that pays for county operations like the jail, sheriff’s office, court system, clerical staff, and heating and electric bills. Would this financial incentive encourage a greater number of traffic stops of nonwhite people in order to increase county revenue? I’m having a hard time seeing why this would not result in traffic stops and detention for profit.
What would I have done differently had I known about this sooner? What could I do differently now? The answer is that I don’t know. I could have used my childhood connection as a type of cultural currency and joined some other voices in McHenry County in opposing this contract. I could have written about it, tried to make it higher profile than it seems to be now. Now I need to figure out where I go from here, and I would encourage others to see what connections they might be ignoring. Unless a lot more ordinary people start looking for connections and becoming involved in even the smallest possibility of change in some of the smaller communities, I fear that we are going to continue this Groundhog Day-like existence as we repeat the same mistakes and ruin the lives of millions more people who have crossed the border to try to establish a safer life for themselves and their families.
It is not only the high-profile issues that we need to pay attention to, but also the quieter ones, ones like the ICE detention facility in the area in which I grew up. It was the subject of two newspaper articles and has not been a visible or discussed topic beyond that, but these same types of issues are happening across the country in small towns and rural areas. While it is important to continue to fight against injustice at a national level and resist the policies of a government that continues to violate human rights, there are opportunities to work at the local level with an eye towards “trickle up” social justice reform. Many nights I have lain awake in bed staring at the ceiling and wondering if this will be the only way to bring about true and lasting change. It’s worth a try. What connections might you have to a community or issue that seems small but ties into the larger picture?