Kankakee County’s sheriff is shedding some of the secrecy about the types of immigrant detainees in the county jail — the subject of an ongoing local debate.
This week, Sheriff Mike Downey showed some of the documents from the federal government that indicate whether immigrant inmates are listed as having criminal histories or not.
At least three quarters of immigrants at the Kankakee County jail had criminal histories during a two-month period earlier this year, according to an analysis of the documents.
The mystery over the types of immigrants in the jail has been a point of contention between county officials and opponents of housing immigrant detainees at the county lockup.
The county houses the immigrants on behalf of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
During an interview at the sheriff’s office, Downey showed ICE documents that included information on immigrant detainees coming into the local jail from Feb. 28 to May 2. During that time, 148 immigrants came into the jail. Of those, 76 percent were listed as having significant criminal histories, while 24 percent were jailed for reasons such as entering the country illegally. These immigrants came to the jail via ICE in Chicago.
“They are not necessarily all getting deported,” Downey said, adding he has not received numbers on what percentage are expelled from the country.
Another group not included among the 148 immigrants were immigrants who arrived at the local jail from state prisons. Having served their sentences for crimes such as rape and drug dealing, this group will be deported after their stay in Kankakee, Downey said.
Downey said this second group is considerably smaller than the ones who came through ICE in Chicago, but he didn’t have an exact number. Pro-immigration activists don’t seem to have an issue with this group going into the jail and being deported.
All the immigrants in the second group have been convicted of crimes, which is not necessarily the case with those with criminal histories who came to Kankakee via ICE in Chicago. Those coming from ICE may have been previously accused of serious crimes or could have been charged with minor crimes such as traffic violations, contempt of court or disorderly conduct.
Fred Tsao, an attorney with the Chicago-based Immigration Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, questioned how the federal government counts those with criminal histories. He said ICE mixes noncriminals in the group with criminal histories.
“There are people listed as having criminal histories who have been arrested but were never charged, “ Tsao said in an interview. “Those numbers need to be scrutinized further. There are big differences.”
Downey said he didn’t know exactly how the federal government defined those with criminal histories. But he said people who entered the country illegally should follow the laws.
The county gets up to $1 million per month from housing inmates for ICE and the U.S. Marshals Service. It started housing ICE detainees in late 2016.
At each county board meeting for months, ICE opponents have criticized the county for housing immigrants. They say the county is making money on immigrants’ backs.
“That’s not a fair representation on what we’re doing,” Downey said.
Federal regulation bars the sheriff’s office from releasing information on individual ICE detainees. So when Downey showed the agency’s documents, the Daily Journal was not allowed to make copies.
In February, Downey alleged during a county meeting the Daily Journal had been running a “made-up” number about immigrant detainees in the jail. Last week, he said that number was not from one of the newspaper’s stories, but rather in a piece from an anti-ICE group in the paper.
Downey spoke about ICE detainees at a meeting of the county board’s criminal justice committee. The day before, a number of immigration activists spoke out against the county’s handling of the issue at a county board meeting. Downey said he disagreed with much of what they said.
“For people to come in and make it sound like we’re housing people who have done nothing wrong is absolutely ludicrous,” the sheriff told the committee. “Our ICE inmates have a story. Our local inmates have a story. If you want to come to our country, don’t commit a crime. Every month, these people talk about these poor, poor guys. What they’re telling you is not accurate. All you are hearing is one side.”