Illinois lawmakers failed to muster the votes needed Thursday for a bill that would have blocked construction of a for-profit federal detention center for undocumented immigrants south of Chicago.
For more than a year, controversy has consumed the village of Crete, Ill., a site the federal government is considering for a new, 750-person immigrant detention center that would be built and operated by the nation's largest private prison contractor, Corrections Corporation of America. The proposal has inflamed people in the village of about 8,000, where strip malls give way to cornfields in the southern reaches of the Chicago suburbs.
Opponents of the detention center have erected yard signs and collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition in recent months, calling on elected officials to abandon the plan.
"This is a small, semi-rural town, a blip on the south side of Chicago," said Jerry Callaway, a Crete resident who has organized opposition to the detention center over the past year. "We don't want to be defined by that institution. We don't want to be a prison town."
Lawmakers in the Illinois General Assembly voted late Thursday on a bill that would have banned privately operated detention centers in the state, preventing the Crete project. The Illinois House voted down the measure 59-54, following a legislative session where Corrections Corp. of America hired an influential state lobbying firm to make its case.
The state Senate introduced the bill banning private detention centers in February, and approved the measure in March. Thursday was the last day for the House to take action before the end of the legislative session.
Private prison companies such as CCA and the GEO Group have zeroed in over the past decade on immigration detention as a growing source of revenue, since the federal government has taken a harder line on apprehending and deporting undocumented immigrants. Revenue from the immigrant detention business has more than doubled over the past decade for both companies.
But Illinois is an unlikely place for private prisons to set up shop. Since 1990, Illinois law has prohibited the outsourcing of state prisons to private contractors. Last year, lawmakers extended the private prison prohibition to contracts with county and local governments.
State law does not, however, expressly prohibit state or local authorities from contracting with private entities to run immigration detention centers such as the one proposed in Crete. When lawmakers this year proposed rewriting the law to also include detention centers, CCA hired one of the state's most powerful lobbying firms to work on its behalf.
State records show that the company hired Dorgan-McPike & Associates, run in part by a former Illinois House majority leader, to lobby the Assembly and the governor's office this year. This is the first year CCA has hired a lobbyist in Illinois, according to the state's lobbying records database, which dates to 2000.
A CCA spokesman, Mike Machak, wrote in an e-mail that the company had "worked to educate policymakers about the value of public-private partnerships, and the many benefits these relationships can mean for communities." He noted that the vote will provide "important support for economic opportunities in Illinois when the state needs it most."
Opponents of the plan, including the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, argued that building the detention center would instead shift jobs away from county jails where Illinois immigrant detainees are currently being held. Lawrence Benito, the group's executive director, called the legislative battle a "David and Goliath fight."
"Corrections Corporation of America, a multi-billion dollar company, has many more resources than we have," Benito said.
Discussion of the detention center in Crete began in 2010, when CCA approached village officials about a potential opportunity to build a detention center in town, said Tom Durkin, Crete's village administrator. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities wanted a new facility in the Chicago area to house immigrants awaiting deportation or court hearings.
Town officials and CCA sent a joint proposal to ICE in November 2010, and the agency "tentatively selected" Crete as the proposed site last year.
Residents who oppose the detention center complain that village officials have not been forthcoming with the public about the plans. The village hasn't held any public hearings on the detention center, and the members of the village's elected board of trustees have not publicly said where they stand on the project.
"We go to the village hall meetings every other Monday, and there's a good 30 or 40 or 50 people who come and continuously ask questions," said Marimonica Murray, who has distributed signs around town opposing the detention center. "Right now, the trustees are pretty tight-lipped about which way they're going to vote on this. They just aren't probably going to say anything until it comes down right down to it."
Durkin, the village administrator, said officials are evaluating the detention center just like any other economic development opportunity that comes along. He said no one wants to make a decision prematurely before studying all the costs and benefits of the project.
"Just because you look at something doesn't mean that it's a done deal, and I think we were very, very explicit about that fact," Durkin said. "If I have a Walmart that wants to come to town, or if I have somebody who wants to build a car wash, is that something you go to the public for?"
Neither CCA, the Village of Crete nor ICE have signed any formal agreements on the detention center. An ICE spokeswoman wrote in an email that the agency "has not yet signed any agreements or committed to any long-term obligations; these terms are still under negotiation."
UPDATE: 11:08 p.m. -- This article has been updated to include comments from a Corrections Corp. of America spokesman.