Calling the practice of detaining undocumented immigrants inhumane and unecessary, demonstrators gathered in downtown Chicago Tuesday morning and called on federal officials to release nearly 30 undocumented immigrants being held at county jails in McHenry and Kankakee counties.
Angela Osorio was among those who demonstrated outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Chicago Field Office on Tuesday. Not long ago, she was also among the immigrants being detained at those facilities.
Osorio, a native of Colombia, had been living in the U.S. for more than 20 years when ICE agents detained her last April for being undocumented.
She spent six months at McHenry County Jail in the far northwest suburbs, which she calls the “most traumatic experience of my life.”
Osorio, 40, missed her three sons. She struggled with depression and even tried to commit suicide — for which authorities at McHenry offered nothing but sleeping pills, Osorio said. “If you get sick, you have to be dying in order for you to see a doctor,” she added.
Then, last October, Osorio was told she would be transferred to a jail in Kansas.
“I immediately called my attorney to see what was going on, he didn’t know anything,” Osorio said. “At 2 in the morning the following day, they transferred me. Chains around my feet, handcuffed, chain around my waist, all the way to Kansas” on a flight, she remembered.
Osorio said, after three months at Chase County Jail in Kansas, where she was detained along with the general population — “people using drugs, fighting” — she was told by ICE to call her family to buy an airplane ticket for her for that same day. She was being released.
Now Osorio is back living with her family in west suburban Cicero.
“It’s different when you are next to your children,” Osorio said. “It’s different when you can see the sun. Your mentality changes. [Detainees] should be out in order for them to fight for their cases.”
The McHenry and Kankakee facilities previously had contracts with ICE before the Illinois Way Forward Act, signed into law last year, ended the practice. Officials in both counties challenged the law in court, but federal judges upheld it last month.
On Tuesday, the demonstrators called on Sylvie Renda, ICE’s Chicago Field Office director, to use her discretion to release immigrant detainees.
Lisa Chun, an attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, said ICE’s default position is to transfer detainees to other states, and that’s why her organization and others — such as the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Collaborative for Health Equity Cook County — are calling for the detainees to be released instead.
Chun said immigration cases are civil, not criminal, and detainees should be given the opportunity to reside with their families and in their communities as they continue to pursue their immigration court cases — “especially at a time when COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the ICE detention system.”
She added that there were nearly 100 immigrant detainees in Illinois at the beginning of the year, but many have been released.
During the demonstration on Tuesday, groups tried to hand-deliver a petition signed by nearly 3,000 people, as well as a copy of a letter sent to ICE and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security last week by seven members of Congress, but security staff told them the office was closed and advocates were not allowed to enter.
According to Chun, ICE has until Feb. 12 to make final decisions on whether to transfer or release detainees.
WBEZ reached out to ICE asking about its plans to release or transfer the remaining immigrant detainees, as well as what the decision process entails. ICE officials have not yet responded.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her on Twitter @estheryjkang.