More than 400 people packed Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church Thursday to learn more about an immigrant detention center that could be built in Joliet and to make plans to ensure it doesn't come to pass.
Amid outbreaks of applause and shouts of "Yes We Can" and "Si Se Puede," a half dozen speakers covered topics ranging from the evils of privately owned prisons to the potentially negative economic impacts to ways to organize and defeat any proposal presented.
"It's something we have to pay close attention to," said the Rev. José Cilia, Our Lady associate pastor, speaking in both English and Spanish. "It will change the way we live, the way we educate, the way we work.
"Many people already feel like they're in a prison of fear (because they're undocumented and could be deported)," Cilia said. "We do not need this prison."
In October it was revealed that Joliet City Manager Tom Thanas had met with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Washington, D.C., to discuss the possibility of building a privately run immigration detention center in Joliet.
The 700-bed facility would be owned and operated by Corrections Corp. of America, which saw its plans for a similar center in Crete derailed by public opposition.
Thanas, who attended the meeting but was not invited to speak, said Thursday that he has not spoken with anyone affiliated with the immigration department or the CCA since that initial meeting.
Part of the public opposition centers on the nature of a for-profit prison, which needs to fill beds and save money in order to succeed.
Tom Garlitz, representing the Diocese of Joliet's Office for Human Dignity, said Catholic bishops in America have denounced the concept of immigration detention centers. They want a moratorium on deportation until the federal government establishes an official immigration policy, he said.
For-profit prisons, Garlitz said, quoting a letter written by the bishops, see people as "commodities." When people get "de-humanized," it makes it easier for others to abuse and exploit them, he said.
Beyond that is the human toll of families being divided, Garlitz said. Sometimes, it's the father who is sent back to his native country, casting his wife and children into poverty, he said. Other times, both parents are deported and their American-born children end up in foster care, he said.
Economically, it could have a huge impact on Joliet, resident David Valazquez told the audience. Undocumented residents, whom he estimated to be more than half of Joliet's 41,000 Hispanic population, would likely leave the city -- taking with them nearly $286 million in annual spending.
Valazquez said local undocumented workers are paying taxes, buying homes and investing in businesses. Living in the shadow of a deportation center will cause them to abandon the community, he said.
The loudest audience response of the evening was for Bernie Kopera and Cetta Smart, organizers of the effort that kept the CCA from building a detention center in Crete.
While there are very few Hispanics their tiny town of 8,000, the negative impacts of a privately owned immigration facility are the same wherever it's built, Kopera said.
The pair vowed to join the fight against a center being built in Joliet.
"Will we win this (fight)?" Kopera challenged. "Yes," the crowd shouted back. "Will you be a fighter on this?" "Yes!"
Thanas, speaking prior to the meeting, said there is going to be public opposition to an immigration detention center, regardless of where it's built. Much of what's being said about CCA specifically and privately owned facilities in general is either not true or exaggerated, he said.
"It would be a state-of-the-art facility able to (handle) detainees in the deportation process," Thanas said. "CCA has 66 facilities throughout the U.S. If they had a policy of abusing people, they would have been out a business a long time ago.
"Show me a jail that doesn't have an (occasional) allegation of abuse, and I'd question the accuracy of that belief. It's the nature of these facilities. ... Have the allegations of excessive force (against CCA) risen to the level of extraordinary? Based on my investigations, they have not.
"What I find it frustrating is that people are unwilling to listen to the facts," Thanas said. "The effort the opposition is putting into this would be better spent in finding long-term answers to the bigger issue (of immigration policy)."