Illinois divided over news of incoming Guantanamo detainees

Illinois' Republican lawmakers oppose the Obama administration's decision to transfer some Guantanamo detainees to a prison in the state - and a recent poll shows a majority of Illinois voters do, too. But Democratic leaders are behind the move, citing new jobs.

Stephanie Makosky/Reuters/File
The Thomson Correctional Center is seen in Thomson, Illinois, in this November 16 file photo.

The administration’s decision to transfer several dozen detainees from Guantánamo Bay to Thomson Correctional Center in northwest Illinois comes as welcome news to prominent Democratic politicians in the state, including Gov. Pat Quinn and Sen. Richard Durbin, who have lobbied for the choice.

But whereas most Illinois Democrats point to the jobs and money that would flow to a depressed area of the state, Republicans, led by Rep. Mark Kirk, have opposed it, arguing that moving detainees to the area poses a security risk for northern Illinois and Chicago.

“Our economy is hurting everywhere … but the idea of moving a detention facility, where 200 of the worst known criminals on earth live, to our state under the guise of economic stimulus is outrageous,” says Rep. Aaron Schock, one of several Illinois Republicans who introduced a bill last month that would prohibit using federal dollars to move the detainees to US soil.

Still, there may not be much they can do to fight the decision, announced by the White House on Tuesday.

“I suppose Congress can hold hearings on it, but if the executive branch wants to do it this way, I don’t see any ability of politicians to block it,” says Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

According to a Rasmussen poll released over the weekend, 51 percent of Illinois voters oppose the move, while 39 percent are in favor.

Representative Kirk, a frontrunner for the Republican nomination for US Senate in Illinois’s 2010 race, has been a vocal opponent, arguing, like Representative Schock, that bringing suspected terrorists to the US is a security risk. With little hope of changing the outcome, he is nonetheless taking a stand that helps shore up his conservative credentials for the Senate race, says Professor Simpson.

But for many in the state, “if you say you’ll give the state $100 million and jobs to a few thousand people, that sounds like pretty good news,” says Simpson.

Some of the most outspoken proponents have been the communities surrounding the prison, where people hope the creation of some 3,000 jobs will be an economic boon. The jobless rate for Carroll County, where Thomson prison is located, stands at about 11 percent.

Governor Quinn – probably the only state politician who could stop the move, if he were to balk at selling the maximum-security prison to the federal government – has been an enthusiastic supporter of the plan.

“This is an opportunity to dramatically reduce unemployment, create thousands of good-paying jobs, and breathe new economic life into this part of downstate Illinois,” he said Tuesday in a joint statement with Senator Durbin. Both men were briefed by the White House in Washington on Tuesday.

The White House’s decision to acquire Thomson, a 1,600-cell facility that has sat largely unused in the eight years since it was built, is the first step in a lengthy process to actually transfer detainees to the prison.

Next week, an Illinois legislative commission will hold hearings on whether the state should close the site – a necessary precursor to its sale, though the commission can’t veto the governor’s decision.

There are also a number of questions about which detainees, exactly, would be moved to Illinois and whether the president has the authority to do so. Senior administration officials said Tuesday that the president already has the ability to move detainees to US soil for the purpose of conducting trials, whether in federal court or by military commissions. Most detainees moved to Thomson, which would be given additional security features making it the equivalent of a super-maximum facility, would face trial by military commission within Thomson, the officials said.

Still, Obama will likely need to ask for congressional approval to bring to the US any prisoners to be held in indefinite detention.

Schock says he still hopes that Congress will block the move and that he’s dismayed Quinn didn’t ask tough questions of the administration before offering his support.


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