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Livingston County Town Seeks Economic Boon From Immigration Detention Center

immigration detention facility
Ross D. Franklin
Suspected illegal immigrants are transferred out of the holding area after being processed at the Tucson Sector of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection headquarters in Tucson, Ariz., in 2012.

A Livingston County community believes it may have found a solution to help recoup hundreds of jobs lost when a major employer left town. But Dwight's efforts to land a $20 million federal detention center for undocumented immigrants have raised concerns that it's a sign of economic desperation in the small town of 4,200 residents. 

Jared Anderson took over as village president in 2013, the same year the state closed its female inmate prison in Dwight. The village lost about 450 jobs and $50 million in annual economic impact.

Anderson said it's been a tough six years.

"I feel like it's being presented as a last resort. That's not true."

“It’s been difficult,” Anderson conceded. “With the closing we’ve seen some reduction in housing prices, and they’ve rebounded back to where they were.”

“We have had, unfortunately, some businesses close.”

Two years ago, the village heard from a firm called Immigration Centers for America. The private company operates a detention center in Virginia and is growing.

Anderson said the company likes Dwight's location near multiple interstates and railroads. There's an Amtrak station in town, a hospital in Pontiac and Chicago is only 80 miles away.

Anderson welcomes the possibility of adding an estimated 280 good-paying jobs.

“You are looking at $60,000 a year salaries. That’s a good wage that would bring people into Dwight and give them an opportunity to have a house in town,” Anderson said. “We’re close. I’m not going to say about face, but it would definitely be a positive injection into Dwight.”

The land the immigration center firm wants for a detention center is just west of Dwight near Interstate 55. The village would need to annex the land before the company will formally submit a bid.

No ICE Dwight

Not everyone in Dwight embraces the idea of a detention center for undocumented immigrants.

Hannah Van Der Karr grew up in Dwight. Her father Ryan serves on the Planning Commission that could decide whether this project passes or fails.

“It felt like an injustice to me and the wellbeing of my town, and these people they are targeting to not speak up and do the most that I could to protect this minority group,” Van Der Karr said.

Van Der Karr said she has concerns about a private company in the business of warehousing immigrants.

“They make their profit from how many people they can imprison, so to me that presents almost a moral issue, putting the most amount of prisoners in here and then just relying on that being our profit is a little worrisome to me,” Van Der Karr said.

She has written more than a dozen editorials about the center. She's trying to round up opposition to the plan ahead of the Planning Commission vote that is scheduled for Tuesday night. She's also connected with a group of immigration activists from Bloomington, a group calling itself No ICE Dwight.

Anderson said if the public has problems with a federal detention center possibly coming to town, they haven't told him.

“No one has, to me, come out negatively opposed to it,” Anderson said. “There’s people I know have put some stuff on Facebook, but I’m not a keyboard warrior, (unless) someone wants to have an intelligent conversation.”

Economic Pressure

Dwight is in a tough spot many smaller communities face, fewer economic opportunities, less demand for farmland and more people moving to bigger cities.

That's according to Chris Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University.

He said it's hard for towns with shrinking economies to say no to any development, even if they might have reservations.

“Rural communities are often put in this difficult situation, that larger communities don’t have to confront. It's the growing disparity between rural and urban communities that they have to confront these kinds of difficult situations,” Merrett said.

He said any privately run detention facility is fraught with ethical concerns if its bottom line hinges on how many undocumented immigrants it houses. 

“Are you working to influence criminal justice policy?” Merrett asked. “It’s the idea that the criminal justice system shouldn’t have anywhere a profit motive in it. The only reason someone should be incarcerated is because there’s been a value-neutral unfolding of the criminal justice process.”

Merrett said housing immigrants presents a moral issue local government leaders will have to confront.

“If you are comfortable being the local manifestation of foreign policy and immigration policy, then you can rest comfortably at night and reap the economic development benefits,” Merrett said. 

Van Der Karr said she foresees a day when detention centers like this will become white elephants. Then what?

“These policies have the possibility of changing in the next two years, and it’s possible we could flip over administrations in the White House and in two years this entire facility could become obsolete and have no purpose really,” Van Der Karr said.

Van Der Karr said the question doesn't have to be "do you want the jobs or don't you."

“There are so many possibilities for this not being good and the same reality happening over again

"I feel like it’s being presented as a last resort. That’s not true. There are so many facilities that would be happy to use the prime real estate we have in Dwight and the great community and the people who really want jobs.

“This isn’t our last hope.”

Van Der Karr said Dwight's interstate access and proximity to Chicago also make it a prime spot for warehouses, such as the one grocery store Aldi has in the village.

Adam Dontz, CEO of the Greater Livingston County Economic Development Council, declined to be interviewed for the story. He issued a statement that the GLEDC “recognizes the potential of a significant economic impact which may result if Immigration Centers of America develops a facility in Dwight.”

Some communities might fret over turning over a significant part of the economy to any kind of detention facility. Anderson said that issue has long since been asked and answered in Dwight.

“Dwight for 85 years had a correctional center here and we’ve seen a lot of families where parents, grandparents worked there, provided a good wage,” Anderson said. “They grew up in Dwight, some families still live in Dwight.”

The Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs projects construction of the detention center would provide a $255 million economic impact for Livingston County and much of central and northern Illinois.

It said the economic impact of running the center would be far more localized. It would be in the $60 million per year range, if it reaches employment and other projections.

The agreement Dwight will consider would make infrastructure improvements to the currently unincorporated area, including water and sewer lines. The village would be paid for each detainee, to offset those costs.

Even if Dwight approves the application for a detention center, the Department of Homeland Security makes the final site selection. The village president said there's no timeline for when DHS will decide.

Immigration Centers for America did not return calls seeking comment.  

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.