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Illinois Is Cracking Down on Private Immigration Detention

A new law will give the state the strictest limits on private detention facilities in the nation.
ICE Final

Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker signed a bill on Friday that prevents local governments from making agreements with private immigration detention centers, a move that will give his state the nation's strictest limits on private detention facilities.

In passing the law, Illinois joins a growing number of state and local governments that have restricted their use of immigration detention in recent years. In 2017, California approved a law that prohibits local governments from expanding their existing immigration detention contracts or entering into new ones. The Illinois law is similar, but it goes even further by preventing local governments from engaging in any kind of financial transaction with a private detention center.

Although the law doesn't amount to a full ban on private immigration detention, as the governor's office has claimed, it will still make it much harder for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to open private detention centers in the state. That's because, most of the time, opening a private detention center requires local governments to participate in some way—whether by contracting with a private prison company directly or by providing financial incentives for the facility to open.

While Illinois doesn't currently have any private detention centers, the law is intended to halt the construction of a detention facility in the village of Dwight, about 80 miles from Chicago. Recently, the village voted to annex a nearby parcel of land so that Immigration Centers of America, a detention company that operates one other facility in Virginia, could build a private detention center there. The new law will prohibit that kind of annexation agreement, according to Mark Fleming, national litigation coordinator at the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago.

The law has been largely heralded as a win for immigration advocacy groups, especially amid reports that limits on ICE detention space have made it more difficult for the agency to carry out the mass raids that President Donald Trump has promised. At the same time, as ICE continues detaining record numbers of people, there are some drawbacks to limiting immigration detention in blue states where pro bono lawyers are more abundant and circuit courts are friendlier to immigrants. As I reported in May, some California cities and counties have struggled with unexpected consequences after ending their detention contracts with ICE:

Instead of freeing detainees when these contracts end, ICE has taken steps that sometimes make things even worse for detained immigrants. In some cases, it has responded to closures by transferring people to detention centers hundreds of miles away, where their lawyers fear they won't have access to the same resources they have in California. In other cases, ICE has taken steps to keep the facilities open by contracting directly with private prison companies—a move that shields the detention centers from local government oversight and allows ICE to get around the 2017 law that restricts their expansion.

Fleming says it's possible that ICE will try to get around Illinois' law just as it has tried to get around California's, by moving ahead with plans for a private detention center that don’t involve participation from a local government. However, this kind of maneuver will likely prove more difficult in Illinois—both because Illinois' new law is stricter and because the state doesn't have existing facilities that ICE could easily use.

Ultimately, despite those potential drawbacks, Fleming argues that the law is an important step toward reducing immigration detention.

"At the end of the day, as immigrant advocates we think it's wholly inappropriate to be detaining people for civil purposes when they don't pose a danger to the community," he says. "If we're heading towards a more human immigration system, it has to start somewhere."