CRETE, Ill. - Amid the rose bushes in Kayla Pennington's yard is a sign with a red circle and a diagonal slash across the words "Crete detention center."
It conveys her opposition to a proposal to build a 788-bed, privately operated detention center for illegal immigrants in this village of 8,259 people, which is 30 miles south of Chicago. She doesn't like the idea of a private company running the place, fears property values would plummet and worries that if immigration laws were to change, Crete would be stuck with a vacant building.
"We are opposed to making a profit off other people's suffering," said Pennington, 49, a mother of five who has lived here for almost 10 years with her husband, Jim Flax, 50. "There's no upside."
Fred Rossi, 53, who has lived in Crete for two decades and is unemployed, shares Pennington's concern about the effects of a possible shift in immigration laws, but he does see an upside: the promise of as many as 250 jobs, most of which would be filled by area residents.
"We need those jobs," he said. The March unemployment rate in Will County, where Crete is located, was 9.5%, compared with the national rate of 8.2% for that month.
The planned detention center, where illegal immigrants would be held until they are deported, has caused a stir in Crete that reflects national debates over immigration policies and the growing number of people being held in for-profit prisons and jails.
The share of state and federal prisoners - not including immigration detainees - in private facilities increased from 6.3% in 2000 to 8% in 2010 for a total of 128,195, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The prospect of Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) operating the immigration detention facility is causing much consternation.
"What this is about for us is a multibillion-dollar corporation that is trying to set up shop here in Illinois to make profits off human misery," said Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Illinois already prohibits privately built or operated state prisons and county jails. A bill that also would ban state and local governments from hiring private companies to build or run civil detention centers has been passed by the Illinois Senate. A House committee voted last week to send it to the full House.
The Crete proposal is part of a plan announced in 2009 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to centralize its civil detention system.
At that time, illegal immigrants were scattered in 350 facilities across the country, including county jails and other facilities meant for criminal, not civil, detention. That number has been reduced to 250.
ICE said the Crete facility would mark "another important step in the agency's long-term effort to reform the immigration detention system, emphasizing the health and safety of detainees in ICE custody."
CCA spokesman Steve Owen said the company operates more than a dozen facilities under contracts with ICE. In all, it has 67 facilities nationwide with a total of about 92,000 beds.
Tsao noted that CCA has been criticized and sued for its treatment of inmates, but Owen said corrections "is a highly litigious profession for public and private systems." CCA's track record, he said, "shows that we do a good job of operating safe facilities." The company would spend up to $60 million to build the center, he said.
Economic development a goal
Tom Durkin, the village administrator, said the detention center proposal is being handled just as any other potential economic development project. "We look for opportunities all the time, whether it's this or a German auto parts manufacturer," he said. Village officials are consulting with other communities where CCA facilities are located, researching potential liabilities and considering how the village's image might be affected.
That's a concern for resident Laurene Lambertino-Urquizo, 59. "The thought that we're going to be known as a prison town is just sad," she said.
Because the facility would be privately operated, Durkin said, the village would collect an estimated $236,000 in real estate taxes yearly. Before the Board of Trustees votes on the site plan and contracts with CCA and ICE, he said, public meetings would be held. Despite talk around town, it's not a done deal, he said: "There's nothing that could be further from the truth."
Tim Berens, 57, who has lived here for 12 years, said he's "very skeptical" of the assurances of tax revenue for the village. "We're never going to see a single dollar," he said. He said that he would like to see a referendum on the issue.
Teacher Concetta Smart, 60, said opposition to the plan has brought the community together. "The little town of Crete," she said, "is learning that we do have a say in our government."
By Judy Keen