Free Heartland Kids: A Campaign to End the Detention of Immigrant Children in Chicago

Free Heartland Kids: A Campaign to End the Detention of Immigrant Children in Chicago

It seems that each day some new level of horror is unveiled through the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown. From plans to detain children at a site that once served as a Japanese internment camp, to reports of severely overcrowded and utterly inhumane conditions at border control, the national narrative is now one where we are debating the precise definition of a “concentration camp.” That alone speaks volumes to how dire our current moment is. As socialists and as human beings, we are compelled to take action.

While the most egregious abuses are occurring along the U.S.-Mexico border, the operation expands across the country, including here in our Midwestern backyard. In the Chicago area, non-profit Heartland Alliance, through its Heartland Human Care Services division (HHCS), has been contracted to provide “shelter” to immigrant children who have been separated from their families. On June 17, the Immigration Rights Committee (IRC) of Chicago DSA launched its Free Heartland Kids campaign with a Week of Action targeting Heartland Alliance at its downtown Chicago headquarters. The demands of the campaign are:

“We ask that Heartland Alliance and its division Heartland Human Care Services (HHCS):

  1. Immediately cease intaking immigrant children into their detention centers;
  2. Immediately end their contract with the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to detain immigrant children;
  3. Release and reunify the immigrant children in their physical custody with their sponsors and families in the United States as soon as possible without sharing their sponsors’ biometric data, documentation status, or other personal information with ICE or with any federal agency that shares information with ICE;
  4. Pledge to use their resources and power to fight for a true detention-free, deportation-free, and ICE-free zone in Chicago.”

Through our online petition and canvassing, we have collected nearly 1,500 signatures supporting the campaign in under two weeks and a lot of vocal support from community members. But we have also gotten angry pushback from people defending Heartland on the basis that they are providing humanitarian “shelter.” As conditions worsen along the border, we are likely to see these arguments intensify, on the basis that we (and the kids detained in Heartland facilities) should be grateful that Heartland is providing “better” detention conditions. And while some people making these arguments are coming from a place of good intentions, the argument is ultimately misguided and actually strengthens the entire operation of immigrant detention.

What does it mean to provide shelter versus to detain someone? The children inside Heartland’s facilities are not free to leave and visits from family or even the lawyers representing them are limited, often denied or delayed. They are locked behind iron gates and barbed wire fences, forced to comply with strict rules and schedules or else face punishment. Their lives are at the mercy of the federal government, which has the final say in what happens to them. They can be transferred to another facility or deported at any moment, against their will. That is not shelter, it is prison.

Over 350 children are estimated to be in Heartland’s custody across the five currently remaining centers, but as of last summer, the non-profit could not or would not disclose the numbers. Last week, as part of their reporting on the Free Heartland Kids campaign actions, Telemundo reporters again asked Heartland to confirm the number of children detained but Heartland refused to answer. Their operations came to public attention last year from reporting by ProPublica and the Washington Post, which highlighted abuse allegations including forced labor, denial of medical attention, and physical and sexual abuse from staff. Children in Heartland’s care have gone on hunger strike, engaged in self-harm, and contemplated suicide. Are we really going to allow ourselves to play the game of “these abuses are not as bad as those other abuses on the border”? That is a slippery moral slope that none of us should be willing to fall down.

We should also talk about the money Heartland Alliance receives for operating these prisons. The amount of federal grant money they receive has been steadily increasing each year, coming out to a staggering $48.8 million in 2018 alone. And while Heartland is a “non-profit,” that doesn’t mean no one is profiting. As federal grants have increased, so has the amount of money Heartland pays to executives. For example, the current HHCS Executive Director, David Sinski, started out making $184,498 in compensation and benefits during his first full fiscal year with the organization (July 2013-June 2014). Three years later, his pay had increased to $232,304. During the same time frame, pay for the President/CEO (beginning with Sid L. Mohn, succeeded by Evelyn Diaz) jumped from $331,104 to $418,235, or nearly half a million dollars per year going to one person. Adding in all other executive positions, total compensation jumped from $1,036,099 to $1,484,497. No one should be making that kind of money for detaining children.

Moreover, all of it is dirty money. It requires Heartland, through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), to collect children’s and sponsors’ biometric and personal information and to share that information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), per the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on information sharing first established in 2016, then expanded with a second MOA in 2018. This collaboration with ICE puts children and families in immediate danger, while also strengthening the overall power of ICE to enact its destructive, racist agenda. Family reunification has become even more difficult as a result of the MOAs, as sponsors are deterred from coming forward for fear of ensnaring themselves into ICE’s pernicious network of information that could put their families and communities at risk of harassment and deportation. The MOAs have also increased the risk of trafficking, as undocumented family members feel compelled to send (and sometimes pay) someone who is documented, but perhaps not as trustworthy, to claim the child. Given this reality, no organization collaborating with ICE and complying with these MOAs can rightfully claim to be providing shelter to immigrants. We can and must do better.

We can and must provide shelter for all who need it—shelter from persecution originating both outside and inside the United States. Shelter from ICE. Shelter from deportation. Shelter from criminalization. Shelter from the violence of borders which in and of themselves arbitrarily strip human beings of their fundamental right to safety.

As socialists, we envision a world without borders, where no human being is deemed illegal and the rights of all human beings are respected regardless of location. Until then, we take up the battle in our own backyard, as we stand in solidarity with people across the country who are fighting back against these barbaric attacks on immigrants and on the very fabric of our communities. We have been fighting this battle since long before Trump came into power and we will continue to fight it until we win.

For more information on the campaign:

  • Visit
  • Follow the #FreeHeartlandKids hashtag on social media
  • Contact us at FreeHeartlandKids at gmail dot com