All Politics Is Local: Detention Center Looms in Biggert-Foster Race
Correction: The quotes in this story from both candidates at the forum organized by Latino groups should have been attributed to reporting done by WBEZ Chicago, where they were originally reported.
Big-ticket items like tax rates and the future of Medicare dominate most congressional races these days. But local issues still play a critical role, especially in tight contests like the one in Illinois's 11th District, where the fate of a controversial local project could hinge on the House race's outcome.
Last week, news leaked from Joliet's city hall that the local government was discussing bringing an immigrant detention center to the area. That revelation has since played an under-the-radar role in the congressional race between Republican Rep. Judy Biggert and Democratic former Rep. Bill Foster. Biggert has avoided addressing the issue directly, refusing to appear at a forum organized by Latino groups on Monday, and not returning several requests for comment. Foster expressed wariness at the concept but wanted to see more explicit details. Whoever wins will have a strong role in determining the outcome of the facility. A similar facility was proposed earlier this year in nearby Crete, Ill., but was abandoned after Democratic Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.'s vocal opposition.
The potential detention center would be a partnership between Corrections Corporation of America -- the country's largest private manager of prisons and detention facilities -- the city of Joliet, and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. To local officials, it is a "multi-million dollar investment in the community," according to Joliet City Manager Tom Thanas. It would bring hundreds of construction jobs, hundreds of permanent jobs, and real-estate tax revenue that would fund education initiatives, he said.
Opponents charge that for-profit detention centers create incentives to provide substandard detention conditions and can restrict detainees' rights. It also encourages a culture of increased detention and deportation, said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
"Immigration detention has increasingly become the province of large private corporations making huge profits off of human misery," Tsao said. Thanas said the federal government's role in the partnership is one of several reasons the local member of Congress will have a role determining the outcome of the private facility.
"We'll make sure there is political support for the project," Thanas said. "And something like this that involves the federal government, I'm sure the congressional delegation in Will County will be asked for its opinion."
Will County, which sits southwest of Chicago and contains Joliet, encompasses several districts. But Joliet, the most likely spot, will only be represented by Biggert or Foster. Biggert has represented 48 percent of the 11th District since 1999. Foster used to represent about 26 percent of the new 11th District from 2008 until he was unseated in 2010. Thanas couldn't recall working on any specific project with Foster but Foster has been clearer about his stance on the issue. He voted for the DREAM Act, legislation that would have provided pathways to permanent residency for certain undocumented minors. And he has also been more vocal about the need for immigration reform, Tsao said.
At Monday's forum, Foster said: "For-profit incarceration is something that I am personally quite leery of. We have an immigration system that depends way too heavily on incarceration and deportation." Biggert voted against the DREAM Act and had a spokesperson read this comment addressing the issue at Monday's forum: "Congresswoman Biggert would strongly oppose the federal government coming in and mandating what Joliet should or should not do. It's really, ultimately, Joliet's decision."
But just like when officials attempted to place a detention facility in Crete, the area's congressional member will definitely weigh in. "The representative and both U.S. Senators would have quite a bit of say as far as whether this thing should procede, or if it does procede, what it all should look like," Tsao said. That could make the previously non-public proposal a last-minute factor in the Biggert-Foster race. Biggert has cruised to reelection in her current 13th District but a Democratic-controlled state Legislature redrew her area to open the door for a Democrat. The two have waged a particularly divisive campaign. Biggert dropped out of an AARP-sponsored debate, claiming the organization was not a neutral arbiter. Foster's campaign mockingly "live Tweeted" the debate.
"Certainly those people in the community who are concerned about this issue will be pretty motivated to come to the polls and vote for whichever candidate they believe would be more responsive to their concerns," Tsao said about the immigration issue.