Carlos Ballesteros The Clay County Justice Center in Brazil, Indiana. The justice center houses the sheriff’s office and the county jail — the only jail in Indiana that takes in immigrants in ICE custody. County officials are considering a proposal to more than couble the size of the jail. BRAZIL, Ind. — Clay County is
The Clay County Justice Center in Brazil, Indiana. The justice center houses the sheriff’s office and the county jail — the only jail in Indiana that takes in immigrants in ICE custody. County officials are considering a proposal to more than couble the size of the jail.
BRAZIL, Ind. — Clay County is a lot like the other counties around it: rural, overwhelmingly white, lower middle class, and very Republican. But one thing that sets the county apart is its local jail, which is the only jail in Indiana that holds immigrants and asylum-seekers in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody.
As officials in nearby Illinois prepare to shutter the state’s two remaining immigration detention centers, Clay County is moving forward on a proposal that could more than double the capacity of the jail — paid for in large part by taking in more ICE detainees, local elected officials said.
The county entered into an agreement last month with a local developer on a proposal that would add a new 45,000-square-foot housing pod with at least 265 beds to the Clay County Justice Center. The county commission has not yet fully signed off on the expansion, which could cost upward of $25 million, according to the developer’s proposal.
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The move to expand the Clay County Jail highlights the potential pitfalls when immigration activists in liberal states score big victories — such as the law signed by Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker in August that is set to end local jail contracts with ICE in the state starting Jan. 1. That will make the Clay County Jail the only immigration detention center between Wisconsin and Kentucky.
An ICE spokesperson did not respond to questions about where detainees currently being held in Illinois will be moved once the law goes into effect, but local immigration experts said it’s likely they’ll be moved to jails in neighboring states.
“The long and short of it is that people from Illinois will be held at this expanded jail in Indiana, particularly if and when the jail contracts with ICE here in Illinois shut down,” said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
But immigrant rights activists in Indiana think they can convince the Republican elected officials in this deep-red county to not only abandon their plans to expand the jail but to abandon immigration detention altogether.
“We are going to continue to look to our neighbors in Illinois and to folks in New Jersey, who have been successful at getting these ICE contracts with county jails canceled,” said Hannah Cartwright, an Indianapolis immigration attorney. “This may be a long-term battle for us to do that here in Indiana. But one step forward on that would’ve been to at least stop the [Clay County Jail] expansion.”
Immigration attorney Hannah Cartwright stands outside the Clay County Courthouse after the county commissioners’ meeting on Oct. 4.
On Oct. 4, Cartwright and about a dozen other immigrant rights activists, most from out of town, crowded into a small meeting room on the first floor of the Clay County Courthouse that was filled to capacity for the monthly meeting of the Clay County Commission. The commission is one of the two legislative bodies in the county — both of which are exclusively made up by Republicans — that have to approve the jail expansion plan. Although it wasn’t on the agenda, the jail expansion project became the focal point of the meeting.
Local officials, including Clay County Sheriff Paul Harden and Clay County Commissioner Marty Heffner, argued that most immigrant detainees in the jail are dangerous criminals. Heffner also said the jail expansion was necessary to address the “scourge of drugs that we have in our communities” in this county of about 26,000 people.
But the activists weren’t buying it. During the public comment period, they laid out several arguments — practical, fiscal, and moral — as to why they said the county shouldn’t expand the jail to hold more immigrant detainees.
“Our communities are not a dollar bill, we are people and we deserve dignity and respect,” said Wendy Catalán Ruano, 23, an organizer with the Indiana chapter of Movimiento Cosecha, a national immigrant rights group.
Under President Joe Biden, ICE is detaining fewer immigrants than before, the activists said, meaning that the county could wind up holding the bag with a half-empty jail if the trend continues. They cited national statistics showing that three in four immigrants in ICE custody have no criminal convictions. And they also pointed to a recent ICE inspection of the jail, which found dozens of policy violations, including not providing enough trained mental health and medical personnel.
But the activists face an uphill battle convincing elected officials in this county, where 77% of voters chose Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election, to end immigration detention.
Clay County Council President Larry Moss seemed to sum up the prevailing view among the county’s elected leaders when he said most of the immigrants at the jail are people “you wouldn’t want in your neighborhoods.” And if the county can shore up its finances by detaining them, even better, he said.
“If we got open beds, and if they’re gonna pay us for it, then, yeah,” Moss said.
‘If you could hold more, we could send you more’
A mural on U.S. Highway 40 welcomes passersby to Brazil, Indiana, the largest city and county seat of Clay County. The mural is a block away from the Clay County Courthouse and the Clay County Jail.
The Clay County Justice Center is a squat red-and-gray steel and concrete building with a half-moon entrance. It sits in the shadow of the Clay County Courthouse, a historic building like something out of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” with Greek limestone pillars in front and a two-story copper dome covering a stained-glass skylight that illuminates the rotunda below. Both buildings stand out in Brazil, Indiana, where U.S. Highway 40 runs through the center of town, lined with fast-food chains, a Walmart, and several car-parts stores.
The two-story jail, which was built in 2006, currently has a maximum capacity of 176. If approved, the new expansion would add at least 265 beds, according to plans submitted by BW Development, which hopes to break ground in March.
The county began holding immigrants in ICE custody in the jail in 2013. The jail holds immigrants who have been ordered to be deported by an immigration judge, as well as those still waiting for their final hearings in immigration court.
Harden, who has been sheriff since 2014, said ICE has wanted to send more immigrants to Clay County for years. “ICE said, ‘If you could hold more, we could send you more,’ and I told them that we’re limited in the number we can hold because of our facility size,” he said in an interview with Injustice Watch.