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Opposition mounts against immigrant detention center in Joliet

Joliet resident AliciMorales who moderated congressional forum is seen off Collins Street ClevelAvenue Thursday Nov. 1 2012 Joliet. | Matthew

Joliet resident Alicia Morales, who moderated a congressional forum, is seen off Collins Street and Cleveland Avenue on Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 3, 2012 6:19AM



JOLIET — It’s not clear how serious the city is about bringing an immigrant detention center to Joliet. But opponents have been making it clear they’re against it.

Alicia Morales, the moderator during a candidates forum earlier this week at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church, asked every candidate what they would do to stop a detention center from being built here. Nearly every candidate avoided a firm answer, but that was OK, Morales said Thursday.

“I think the most important thing was making sure they understood where the community stood on an immigrant detention center,” Morales said.

The largely Hispanic crowd applauded the one or two times when candidates or their spokesmen made strong statements against the detention center. But the pulse of all of Joliet has yet to be taken on the issue.

One reason is that the candidates’ night on Monday was the first public forum at which the topic was aired. Yet the candidates at the forum have no direct say-so on whether the project would eventually be built here.

“I was a little surprised that they were asking candidates about it,” said Joliet City Councilman Robert O’Dekirk, who was at the forum as a spectator. “I think some of the candidates deferred and said it was not their place to tell the city what to do, and it’s not.”

O’Dekirk said he hopes the matter would be discussed at next week’s city council meeting. If so it would be the first time the center would be discussed at an open council meeting, although the matter did come up at a closed council session two weeks ago.

News about the detention center basically leaked out, although City Manager Thomas Thanas last week confirmed he has had discussions with federal officials and the private company that would run the prison. Still, Thanas characterized the discussions as “exploratory” and far from the point at which anyone would make a decision.

Morales said it’s time for more information about what the city might do.

“I’m sure different organizations are going to ask our city council and mayor, and those in other communities as well, if this is the kind of business they want,” she said.

The project likely would be privately run, and Morales at the forum frequently referred to it as a “for-profit prison.” Joliet is not the first site explored. The project was rejected in Crete earlier this year. And U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said after Crete rejected the plan that the agency would continue to look for a site in the Chicago area, although they are not identifying where. ICE has refused to talk about what plans it might have for Joliet.

Meanwhile, various Joliet community groups were to meet Thursday night to talk about whether they want to move forward with a campaign to stop the detention center.

“Opposition is brewing against something that hasn’t been defined yet,” Thanas said.

The detention center was defined for Crete, however, before the village decided against it. And Thanas has talked with representatives from Corrections Corp. of America, the same Nashville-based company that would have run the facility if it was built in Crete.

While there are opponents to such a project in Joliet, Thanas said he also has heard from people who like the idea.

“I’m hearing from people — unsolicited — telling me it’s a great idea — anytime I can bring in high-paying jobs, real estate tax revenues that help the schools, and construction jobs,” Thanas said. “I’m still willing to work on it because I think the community still needs high-paying jobs and tax revenue.”

On Friday, Thanas will talk about the detention center with representatives from the Collins Street Neighborhood Association, a neighborhood group in the heart of Joliet’s Hispanic community.

Amy Sanchez, president of the association, said there are many questions and concerns about the possibility of bringing an immigrant detention center to Joliet. Some people, she said, even wonder if profiling of Hispanics in Joliet neighborhoods will increase if the detention center is built in the city.

“We want to give (Thanas) at least the opportunity to give us information,” Sanchez said.



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