BRAZIL, Ind. — Clay County is a lot like the other counties around it: rural, overwhelmingly white, lower middle class, and very Republican. But one thing that sets the county apart is its local jail, which is the only jail in Indiana that holds immigrants and asylum-seekers in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
As officials in nearby Illinois prepare to shutter the state’s two remaining immigration detention centers, Clay County is moving forward on a proposal that could more than double the capacity of the jail — paid for in large part by taking in more ICE detainees, local elected officials said.
The county entered into an agreement last month with a local developer on a proposal that would add a new 45,000-square-foot housing pod with at least 265 beds to the Clay County Justice Center. The county commission has not yet fully signed off on the expansion, which could cost upward of $25 million, according to the developer’s proposal.
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The move to expand the Clay County Jail highlights the potential pitfalls when immigration activists in liberal states score big victories — such as the law signed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in August that is set to end local jail contracts with ICE in the state starting Jan. 1. That will make the Clay County Jail the only immigration detention center between Wisconsin and Kentucky.
An ICE spokesperson did not respond to questions about where detainees currently being held in Illinois will be moved once the law goes into effect, but local immigration experts said it’s likely they’ll be moved to jails in neighboring states.
“The long and short of it is that people from Illinois will be held at this expanded jail in Indiana, particularly if and when the jail contracts with ICE here in Illinois shut down,” said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
But immigrant rights activists in Indiana think they can convince the Republican elected officials in this deep-red county to not only abandon their plans to expand the jail but to abandon immigration detention altogether.
“We are going to continue to look to our neighbors in Illinois and to folks in New Jersey, who have been successful at getting these ICE contracts with county jails canceled,” said Hannah Cartwright, an Indianapolis immigration attorney. “This may be a long-term battle for us to do that here in Indiana. But one step forward on that would’ve been to at least stop the [Clay County Jail] expansion.”
On Oct. 4, Cartwright and about a dozen other immigrant rights activists, most from out of town, crowded into a small meeting room on the first floor of the Clay County Courthouse that was filled to capacity for the monthly meeting of the Clay County Commission. The commission is one of the two legislative bodies in the county — both of which are exclusively made up by Republicans — that have to approve the jail expansion plan. Although it wasn’t on the agenda, the jail expansion project became the focal point of the meeting.
Local officials, including Clay County Sheriff Paul Harden and Clay County Commissioner Marty Heffner, argued that most immigrant detainees in the jail are dangerous criminals. Heffner also said the jail expansion was necessary to address the “scourge of drugs that we have in our communities” in this county of about 26,000 people.
But the activists weren’t buying it. During the public comment period, they laid out several arguments — practical, fiscal, and moral — as to why they said the county shouldn’t expand the jail to hold more immigrant detainees.
“Our communities are not a dollar bill, we are people and we deserve dignity and respect,” said Wendy Catalán Ruano, 23, an organizer with the Indiana chapter of Movimiento Cosecha, a national immigrant rights group.
Under President Joe Biden, ICE is detaining fewer immigrants than before, the activists said, meaning that the county could wind up holding the bag with a half-empty jail if the trend continues. They cited national statistics showing that three in four immigrants in ICE custody have no criminal convictions. And they also pointed to a recent ICE inspection of the jail, which found dozens of policy violations, including not providing enough trained mental health and medical personnel.
But the activists face an uphill battle convincing elected officials in this county, where 77% of voters chose Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, to end immigration detention.
Clay County Council President Larry Moss seemed to sum up the prevailing view among the county’s elected leaders when he said most of the immigrants at the jail are people “you wouldn’t want in your neighborhoods.” And if the county can shore up its finances by detaining them, even better, he said.
“If we got open beds, and if they’re gonna pay us for it, then, yeah,” Moss said.
‘If you could hold more, we could send you more’
The Clay County Justice Center is a squat red-and-gray steel and concrete building with a half-moon entrance. It sits in the shadow of the Clay County Courthouse, a historic building like something out of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with Greek limestone pillars in front and a two-story copper dome covering a stained-glass skylight that illuminates the rotunda below. Both buildings stand out in Brazil, Indiana, where U.S. Highway 40 runs through the center of town, lined with fast-food chains, a Walmart, and several car-parts stores.
The two-story jail, which was built in 2006, currently has a maximum capacity of 176. If approved, the new expansion would add at least 265 beds, according to plans submitted by BW Development, which hopes to break ground in March.
The county began holding immigrants in ICE custody in the jail in 2013. The jail holds immigrants who have been ordered to be deported by an immigration judge, as well as those still waiting for their final hearings in immigration court.
Harden, who has been sheriff since 2014, said ICE has wanted to send more immigrants to Clay County for years. “ICE said, ‘If you could hold more, we could send you more,’ and I told them that we’re limited in the number we can hold because of our facility size,” he said in an interview with Injustice Watch.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security pays the county $55 per day per ICE detainee held at the jail, plus $20 per hour and 57 cents per mile to transport them to and from the jail. Clay County took in more than $1 million from ICE for immigrant detention last year, accounting for about half of the nearly $2 million that the county spent to run the jail. On average, the jail held 53 immigrants per day between June 2020 and June 2021, according to documents obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center and shared with Injustice Watch.
Rural counties such as Clay County hold a majority of ICE detainees, according to a 2019 analysis by NPR. That’s partly because the majority of counties, especially in the Midwest, are rural. But it’s also because ICE contracts are a lucrative prospect for small counties with bed space at their local jails, said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an immigration policy expert at the Ohio State University.
“Operating a jail or prison is expensive, and when it comes to county jails in particular, contracts with the federal government to house people on behalf of ICE means a steady stream of federal money that can be used to operate the jail,” García Hernández said.
As of Oct. 1, about 22,000 immigrants were detained by ICE nationwide, according to the agency. The ICE detention network is made up of more than 200 local jails, private detention centers, and detention centers run by ICE.
Under Biden’s 2022 budget proposal, ICE is projected to detain about 30,000 immigrants per day next year, with more than half of its $7.9 billion budget going toward detaining and deporting immigrants.
Heffner, the county commissioner, suspects that even in the unlikely event that Clay County passes on the opportunity to profit from holding more detainees, a nearby county “is waiting to scoop it up.”
Amanda Hall heard the same arguments in McHenry County, Illinois, as she organized with other activists to get rid of the ICE detention contract in the suburban county an hour-and-a-half northwest of downtown Chicago. Officials there argued that people in ICE custody were dangerous, and that McHenry could offer better accommodations for them than other jails.
“It’s always about the money,” said Hall, a lead organizer with the Coalition to End the ICE Contract in McHenry County. She said county board members in McHenry County and Clay County weren’t thinking about the negative effects of detention.
“They’re not thinking about the community, they’re not thinking about the families, they’re not thinking about the people that are being detained and how families are being torn apart,” she said. “It’s the dollar signs.”
After Pritzker signed the bill banning municipalities from holding immigrants in ICE custody, one county ended its ICE contract, while two others — McHenry County and Kankakee County — took the state to federal court last month in a last-ditch effort to keep theirs, arguing that the loss of immigration detention will cost the counties tens of millions of dollars. A hearing date in that case hasn’t been set.
García Hernández said laws banning immigration detention in liberal states such as Illinois, California, and Washington could end up pushing more immigrants into detention centers in neighboring conservative states, leaving them with access to fewer resources.
“These kinds of policies can only be enacted in fairly liberal to progressive communities,” García Hernández said. “And those communities are also the places that tend to have the strongest legal services, the strongest social services, the most engaged activist community to keep an eye on what’s going on behind the prison wall.”
The issue ‘doesn’t resonate here’
Reanda Kirchner, 46, and Brandy Pierce, 40, took seats in the middle row of the 20 or so chairs set out for the Clay County Commissioners meeting last week. They sat quietly through the first half of the meeting, as the commissioners heard a presentation about the insurance policy for county employees and a fellow Clay County resident stood up to complain about her neighbors not cutting their weeds.
The two women have no connection to the immigration activists who drove in from out of town. But they came to the meeting to ask the commissioners pointed questions about the jail expansion.
Pierce, who works for Kirchner’s construction business, told the commissioners that she’d read all she could about the jail expansion from local media and went looking for more details about the expansion — how much it would cost, how many immigrants the county would need to detain to pay it off, and how much the county makes per immigrant it detains — but couldn’t find all the answers. She also pushed back on the narrative that most immigrants in detention are dangerous criminals.
“I understand they’re here illegally,” Pierce said. “But it’s not like they’re rapists or murderers or anything like that.”
Kirchner and Pierce stayed at the meeting until the end, listening as the activists from Indianapolis described a recent inspection of the Clay County Jail from an ICE subcontractor, which recorded dozens of problems at the jail, including:
- The sheriff’s office “does not provide sufficient staff and support personnel” to meet ICE’s health care standards.
- Officers in charge of initial medical, dental, and mental health screenings are not trained in emergency first aid or suicide prevention on an annual basis.
- Trained medical staff are not on-site on the weekends.
- The jail does not offer outdoor recreation.
Ultimately, the inspector said the jail “does not meet” ICE’s detention standards.
“These deficiencies seem to suggest that the sheriff’s department cannot provide a basic standard of care,” said Romelia Solano, a research fellow with Mariposa Legal in Indianapolis, during the meeting.
An ICE spokesperson did not respond to specific questions about the Clay County Jail. But a 2018 report from the DHS’s Office of Inspector General found that ICE “does not adequately follow up on identified deficiencies or consistently hold facilities accountable for correcting them.”
In an interview after the meeting, Harden said the county has addressed the issues laid out in the report. When asked whether his staff could handle increasing the jail’s population under the proposed expansion, the sheriff didn’t hesitate.
“You betcha,” he said.
After the meeting, Kirchner and Pierce said they were decidedly against the expansion, but they suspect that they’re a minority among their neighbors.
“The issue that doesn’t resonate here, because it’s rural Indiana, is the quality of care for the detainees,” Kirchner said. “I think some people are OK with making money off of detaining somebody.”
Cartwright, the Indianapolis immigration attorney, has been organizing against immigration detention in Clay County for more than a year. In mid-September, a week after the commissioners signed the preliminary agreement with developers to expand the jail, Cartwright and other activists hosted a town hall in Brazil to educate county residents about the perils of immigration detention. But no one from the town showed up.
But after the commissioners’ meeting, Cartwright said the fact that local residents were asking pointed questions about the jail expansion gave her hope that she and the other advocates could prevail in their fight against immigration detention — even in a place like Clay County.
“That right there,” she said outside the courthouse, “felt really good.”