Jorge McNiece, Jr., a 5-year-old boy with a crop of blond hair gelled into a freshly cut mohawk, sinks deep into his sofa cushions and murmurs “I miss you, too,” during a collect call from his father in the McHenry County Jail.
It had been about a month since the boy learned police were called to his Woodstock home for a nonphysical argument while he and his younger siblings were asleep.
When the children awoke June 10, their father, Jorge Pliego-Palma, was being held on a $10,000 bond at the county jail for multiple counts of possessing a fictitious ID and obstructing identification.
Because Pliego-Palma previously had been deported and is undocumented, his fiancee, Malin McNiece, worried his local charges might alert federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which rents bed space from the county jail. Panicking about the fate of her fiance, McNiece tried to reason with jail officials.
“You try and you try and you try to plead to the jail, and you try to tell them your story and it’s like nobody’s listening,” McNiece said.
From McHenry County Sheriff Bill Prim’s perspective, however, his department is just doing its job.
As of Feb. 14, the McHenry County Jail was holding 285 people for ICE, McHenry County Sheriff’s Deputy Sandra Rogers said. On average, men will stay at the jail 29 days before they are released or moved to a federal detention center. Women typically spend 41 days at the jail, Rogers said.
Pliego-Palma was taken into federal ICE custody after being released from the McHenry County Jail on bond Friday morning.
McHenry County’s agreement with the U.S. Marshals Service charges $95 a day for housing immigration detainees. The county also is compensated $46 an hour for transporting federal inmates, according to the agreement.
Locals concerned about the fate of undocumented immigrants rallied last month in the Woodstock Square. Another group of about 200 people attended a vigil July 1 outside the McHenry County Jail in solidarity with the national outrage expressed by those who wish to abolish ICE altogether.
Although “the idea of people being separated from their children,” isn’t one Prim is fond of, some degree of severance is a reality for everyone housed in the jail, not just those taken into ICE custody, he said.
“If we have information about somebody’s status, we’ll share that information with ICE,” Prim said.
In that monthlong span since Pliego-Palma’s arrest, McNiece has struggled to get by.
The 28-year-old lost her job when she no longer could afford a babysitter and needed to stay home to take care of Jorge McNiece and her two other young children, she said.
She had refrained from posting her fiance’s bond, knowing it would mean skipping a month’s rent. Receiving $30 credit toward bond for each day at the county jail, however, by Friday, Pliego-Palma had done enough time to pay off his bail.
Still, McNiece understood there was no guarantee Pliego-Palma would be released if ICE agents were present and chose to arrest him without a warrant.
Although there are no ICE agents stationed in the jail, the county’s contract with the group means agents regularly come and go from the Woodstock facility, sometimes with their eyes on inmates with questionable immigration status.
“There’s usually one [ICE agent] in and around the jail sometimes during the course of the day,” Prim said. “It’s not like that’s their assignment to be inside the jail all the time.”
A Polish immigrant herself, McNiece worries what will happen to her children if she no longer can provide for them while her fiance is in federal custody, or worse – if he is deported.
Faced with options she fears will put her children at a disadvantage if she stays in the U.S., McNiece is considering leaving behind what family she has left and relocating to her fiance’s hometown in Telpacingo, Morelos in Mexico.
“Here I am. I’m an American citizen waiting to relocate to another country just for my kids to have their father,” McNiece said.
McHenry County’s contract with ICE has long been a point of contention.
Prim has been the target of several lawsuits that accused the jail of detaining people in violation of the Illinois Trust Act, which bars officers from holding someone based solely on their immigration status.
Those lawsuits have been dismissed, although three complaints naming Prim and U.S. Attorney General Jeff sessions were filed in federal court last month.
Prim declined to comment on the cases while they are ongoing, and several attempts to reach attorneys for comment were unsuccessful.
Deciding whether to sever ties with ICE isn’t up to Prim, he said. The contract is with the county – not the sheriff’s office alone.
Although the Trust Act allows for local and federal agencies to communicate with one another about inmates’ immigration status, the ethics of that communication remain under scrutiny.
“They’re basically feeding him to the dogs,” McNiece said.