Dwight, Ill., is a little town sandwiched between Joliet and Bloomington off Interstate 55 in Livingston County.
It’s not known for much, although on occasion, you might find a tourist passing through since the historic Route 66 cuts through the village of about 4,000 residents located some 80 miles from Chicago.
For more than 80 years, the village was home to the Dwight Correctional Facility, a state prison for women that included inmates on death row. The prison was Dwight’s largest employer with some 350 workers, so the town took a hit when it closed in 2013 during Illinois’ budget crisis.
Now, Dwight is hoping a different type of incarceration can give a boost to jobs and its economy.
This week, the Dwight Village Board voted to annex 89 acres just outside the town for a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center. Under a contract with ICE, Virginia-based Immigration Centers of America would build a 1,200-bed facility to house undocumented immigrant men from Chicago, Northwest Indiana and other parts of the Midwest. It would be Illinois’ first privately operated detention center.
ICE has been trying since 2011 to find a location to open such a facility. ICE has previously identified sites in south suburban Crete, Ill., and in Gary, Hobart and Elkhart in Indiana. But each time, the effort failed because of public opposition.
“This has been a Whack-A-Mole game in Illinois and Indiana of private prison companies trying to build a detention center here,” immigrant rights activist Gabriela Marquez Benitez said. “We don’t know how this would affect Dwight or the entire Midwest. We do know that it will ramp up raids in our communities.”
Benitez was among the dozens of opponents from Chicago and the Bloomington area to descend on Dwight for this week’s important vote at Dwight High School. About 100 opponents participated in a protest march with banners reading “Families Belong Together” and “Keep ICE Out.”
While the majority of people who spoke before the Village Board are opposed to the proposal, some spoke in favor, primarily for the jobs the facility could bring.
“I’m asking that you have this detention center and not be intimidated and threatened by these protestors who have absolutely no vested interest in Dwight,” said Bart Scott of Dwight, who sported a red “Make America Great Again” cap.
Dwight Mayor Jared Anderson said there is no guarantee the facility will ever get built — it’s now up to ICE. The agency did not respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment.
Anderson believes the center will be good for Dwight and vice versa, due to the town’s prison history.
“We’re familiar with the aspect of having a facility that’s very similar to this. We have a better understanding of what [the centers] are,” Anderson said. “We sit and wait to see if the Department of Homeland Security issues a request for proposal in the Chicagoland region. I understand that there are several spots in southern Wisconsin that have zoning approved as well or are working on it.”
For his part, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker said he’s against the proposal.
“Governor Pritzker strongly opposes any action that would allow President Trump to advance his anti-immigrant agenda. The administration looks forward to working with advocates to ensure Illinois remains a welcoming state for immigrants,” according to a statement from Pritzker’s office.
While the future of the facility is uncertain, the battle to keep it from becoming a reality is just starting.