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Woodford County declared 'non-sanctuary' for undocumented migrants

The Woodford County Courthouse in Eureka, Ill.
Tim Shelley
Peoria Public Radio
The Woodford County Courthouse in Eureka, Ill.

The Woodford County Board on Tuesday passed a resolution declaring the county a "non-sanctuary" for migrants in the country illegally.

Woodford County joins 12 other mostly conservative counties around the state that have passed similar or nearly identical resolutions in recent months, sparked by fears that the busloads of migrants sent to Chicago by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis might start appearing downstate.

County board member Zachary Ferris said the idea sprung out of a conversation he had with state Rep. Dennis Tipsword, R-Metamora, about the possibility of Gov. JB Pritzker shifting migrants out of Chicago to help the city manage the influx. He also consulted Chris Balkema, the Grundy County Board chairman and presumptive next 53rd District state senator.

"This is not doing ICE raids or hosting any type of action like that," Ferris said. "This is just busing of migrants that come from Chicago or any other county being brought into our county unannounced or very little notice, and leaving us with no resources to house individuals who are not only not legally allowed to be in our county, but within the country as a whole."

The vast majority of migrants arrive in Chicago, with more than 41,000 arriving since August 2022. Migrants have arrived elsewhere in the state. A plane carrying 355 people landed in Rockford last December, but those migrants were also sent from Texas.

Last September, the governor granted $41.5 million to communities willing to welcome asylum seekers. Urbana was the only one outside the Chicago area to take up the offer. A spokesperson for the governor flatly denied the suggestion the state would move migrants downstate with little to no notice.

"That has not happened and it will not happen," the spokesperson said.

The resolution says the county won't accept or provide taxpayer-funded services for migrants, beyond emergency service. It also calls for the county to develop an emergency action plan to respond to that scenario. An unfinalized draft of that plan calls for sending any migrants arriving in Woodford County to Chicago by bus.

The two-page resolution doesn't hold the force of law, but it does reflect the view of a majority of the Woodford County Board. The plan was passed against the advice of Woodford County State's Attorney Greg Minger, who requested another month to review it.

"I understand it's a very important issue to people in this room. But I don't see the rush," Minger said.

A motion to postpone action on the resolution for a month failed on a tied vote. The resolution ultimately passed by voice vote, but was not unanimous. It was difficult to discern how each member voted. Several members of the public had requested a roll call vote to put board members on record.

A paragraph saying people who enter the country illegally can spread disease or lead to an increase in crime was dropped from the final resolution.

All 15 members of the Woodford County Board are Republicans. Donald Trump won the county with more than 69% of the vote in 2020.

The board took more than an hour of public comment ahead of the vote. Biblical arguments were used both for and against the resolution throughout the public comments.

Eureka resident Carolyn Yoder said she opposed the resolution not only because it's flawed legally and morally, but also because it causes needless agitation.

"I don't object to making sound plans for a realistic possibility. This seems more to me like waving a red cape in front of a bull just to get people riled up. And I don't think that's necessary," she said.

Charlotte Alvarez is the executive director of the McLean County-based Immigration Project, which assist immigrants throughout much of central and southern Illinois. She pointed out most of the migrants currently arriving in the United States from the southern border aren't actually here illegally.

"They're going through the process to determine whether they have a valid asylum claim. They're following every single legal pathway set out for them by the U.S. government," she said.

Alvarez said migrants seeking asylum do have a temporary need for support when they first arrive because the process to obtain work authorization can take several months. She said once they have the means to support themselves, migrants positively contribute to the economy.

But a sizable contingent encouraged the board to pass the resolution, arguing the county doesn't have the resources to help or that migrants could pose a threat.

"We want to help people where we can. I don't think this is an issue of being racist, not caring about people. To me, it's an issue of safety," said Barb Mishler of Metamora.

Shannon Rocke is the former Woodford County Board chairman and a Congerville resident. He said people in the United States illegally are criminals.

"It's clear what they are. I think it's important that we let everyone else in the state know where we stand," Rocke said.

Public Safety Committee chairman Blake Parsons said the emergency action plan still needs additional tweaks. It's expected to come before the full county board at a later date.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.