Joliet City Manager Tom Thanas, irked that a local priest called immigrant detention center supporters "racist," not only refused to retract a sarcastic comment he made about the Catholic church but criticized their position on the issue as hypocritical.
For weeks, members of different religious groups have been attending Joliet City Council meetings to speak against a detention center being built in Joliet. At each meeting, Thanas explains that no plans have been presented so all discussion on the subject is "academic."
But Thanas seemed to have reached the boiling point Tuesday night when the Rev. Peter Jankowski, pastor of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, told the council that those who support immigrant detention centers are racists.
"I've come to realize that the phrase illegal alien or Joliet detention center has turned into a code to slander people of our country with different colored skin," Jankowski said.
"We have a saying in the country. You can dress up a pig, but it's still a pig, and this pig is called racism. This is racism of the worst kind. It's like saying slavery is OK or internment camps are OK."
Although Thanas did not respond at the time Jankowski spoke, he was moved to do so later when City Councilman Larry Hug suggested he apologize for a sarcastic comment he made earlier in the meeting about the Catholic diocese moving its headquarters to Crest Hill but returning to criticize city actions.
"You know what, Larry, I am not going to apologize because I've had five Catholic priests come to the podium and lecture me, and the last one, Father Jankowski, talked about racism. If someone is in favor of a detention center, that person's a racist," he said.
"I have to tell the Office of Human Dignity of the Catholic diocese to look at its own religion and deal with some of its own human dignity issues that have gone on in the Catholic church for the last 30 years before they come to this city council chamber and lecture me about racism."
The comment was a veiled reference to the ongoing problems the Catholic church has had with pedophile priests.
The idea of a possible immigrant detention center being built in Joliet emerged in October. Thanas went to Washington, D.C., to hear more about the project -- which is to be built somewhere in Chicago or its surrounding suburbs -- and to determine if Corrections Corporation of America might consider Joliet as a location.
Thanas has stayed in contact with private prison firm and plans to travel at his own expense to tour a CCA immigration facility in Houston, but the company has not approached the city about building anything here, he said.
And Tuesday, Thanas stressed again that some of the information community members are circulating about a potential detention center is inaccurate.
Many opponents believe the need to keep the center filled will result in immigration officials looking for illegal immigrants locally, causing families to be divided and Joliet's economy to be irreparably harmed if undocumented workers are deported or move from the area out of fear.
Jankowski said that with immigration reform on the horizon, neither the Obama administration, nor Republicans, support such centers.
That's not true, Thanas said. The president supports the continued use of detention centers but only to rid the country of those illegal aliens committing serious crimes, he said.
"This is a key part of the administration's efforts at immigration reform," Thanas said.
"Right now, the people who are in the process of deportation are criminals. These are people who are pedophiliacs, they're drug dealers, they're violent criminals, they're tax cheats," he said. "It's not the government that's breaking up the family, it's the criminal that's breaking up the family."
Detention centers not only remove detainees from federal prisons, where it costs $400 to $500 a day to house them, but expedite the deportation process because a judge will be on site to hear cases, he said.
Jankowski also told the council he felt compelled to speak for the Hispanics in the community because he was tired of hearing them referred to as "those people" and he wanted to ensure their voices were heard because they have "very little to no representation on this council itself."
"Let's learn from the lessons of our past. Instead of incarcerating immigrants, let's try to love them. Instead of trying incarcerate immigrants, let's learn to talk to them."