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Biggert, Foster sidestep Joliet immigrant detention-center project

Elisa Chombo of Joliet signs a petition against the detention center at a Monday night forum. (WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)
U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert and her Democratic challenger, Bill Foster, are locking horns in one of the nation’s most competitive House races, but both are trying to sidestep a brewing controversy over something President Barack Obama’s administration is talking about bringing to the district: a privately run immigrant detention center.

The project came to light last week when an official of Joliet, a city 40 miles southwest of Chicago, said he had had talks with federal officials and Tennessee-based Corrections Corporation of America. The Joliet official, City Manager Thomas Thanas, said the detention center could generate hundreds of jobs and city revenue.

The project is not going over well with Latino groups that organized a candidate forum Monday night at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Joliet church. The forum’s moderator tried to ask the 11th Congressional District candidates whether they would help fight the project.

The response from Foster, a former U.S. representative, elicited nods from the roughly 200 audience members at points. “For-profit incarceration is something that I am personally quite leery of,” Foster said. “We have an immigration system that depends way too heavily on incarceration and deportation.”

But Foster said it was too early for him to make a decision about the detention center. “I want to see the details of it,” he said. “So the answer is, I’m waiting and seeing.”

Biggert, the race’s Republican, did not attend the forum. She sent a spokesman, who read a campaign statement that did not answer the moderator’s question. “Congresswoman Biggert would strongly oppose the federal government coming in and mandating what Joliet should or should not do,” the spokesman told the crowd. “It’s really, ultimately, Joliet’s decision.”

Hours before the forum, WBEZ asked the Biggert campaign whether she would back a privately built and operated immigrant detention center in the district. The campaign sent the statement and did not answer the question.

Joliet’s project follows a setback for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and CCA in south suburban Crete, where the agency wanted the company to build and run the detention center.

A political tide against the Crete project rose in January, when rivals in the area’s Democratic House primary — U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and his challenger, former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson — both sided against it. Village trustees rejected the plan in June.

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