On most mornings, the names of people arrested and headed to bond court at Chicago’s main criminal courthouse are written on paper lists tacked to a bulletin board in a hallway outside the courtroom. Anxious friends and relatives run their fingers down the sheets to make sure that they’re in the right place, but they aren’t the only ones scanning those lists.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents go through them by hand to find the names of immigrants who are here illegally and have been swept up into the local criminal justice system, federal officials say. That places them in ICE’s crosshairs and potentially on a path toward deportation.
That kind of primitive workaround is a reality for federal agents whose territory is Chicago, one of the largest cities to call itself a sanctuary and to implement policies aimed at defying federal crackdowns on illegal immigration — a movement that has gained steam as some governments in the Chicago area express their opposition to President Donald Trump’s plans to increase deportations.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other local politicians, saying they value the contributions of immigrants, have trumpeted Chicago’s status as a place that will welcome and shield those here illegally, including by not having the Chicago Police Department cooperate with ICE.
“You’re going to be safe here,” Emanuel said in a message for immigrants. “You are going to be secure here. You’re going to be supported here.”
Here, sanctuary city status means ICE agents will get limited if any cooperation from local authorities, including the Police Department and the Cook County sheriff’s office, which operates the jail. In fact, the number of detainers ICE has issued to the jail has dropped precipitously since the county adopted its sanctuary ordinance, forcing agents to look for the sort of workarounds they employ at the courthouse.
Julie Myers Wood, who headed ICE during President George W. Bush’s second term, said she expected that the criminal justice system would continue to be a site for conflict and confusion as the federal government tries to implement Trump’s new immigration policies.
“Someone is pulled over. What can the officer do? What must the officer do?” she asked. “If ICE wants to talk to that person, will they be allowed into a facility to make a determination about them?”
Other leaders in Cook County have joined the effort to shield immigrants, adding to the obstacles the government faces. Chicago Public Schools officials recently told principals to turn away ICE agents without warrants, and Cardinal Blase Cupich instructed priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which covers Cook and Lake counties, to do the same.
But being a sanctuary city offers limited protection to unauthorized immigrants; Chicago can’t prevent immigration agents from raiding businesses in search of workers or detaining immigrants at their homes. As a result, neighborhoods have been on edge for weeks amid real detentions at O’Hare International Airport and home visits from ICE agents — as well as unfounded rumors on social media about immigration checkpoints on “L” trains.
“There’s a lot of preparation for the worst,” said local activist Tania Unzueta, of the national Mijente organization, a group dedicated to Latino organizing and a critic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. “I’ve already had to have conversations with people (telling them), ‘You are a priority. You are in danger. If ICE comes and picks you up, I don’t know that I can get you out.’ ”
ICE works without jail help
The Cook County Board enacted its sanctuary ordinance in fall 2011. Commissioner Chuy Garcia, who was elected to the board in 2010, pushed the ordinance after immigrant advocates and clergy told him there were problems with aggressive ICE enforcement in the county. They invited Garcia to a protest against ICE’s practice of deporting people “for the most minor infractions of the law.”
“People were winding up at Cook County Jail for minor tickets and infractions of the law, mainly from incidents that were occurring in suburban Cook County, where police departments were pulling people over because (of failure to use) a turn signal, in a vehicle that a mom was driving to take a child to school or to the doctor,” Garcia said. Sometimes people found themselves transferred to ICE custody “and people wound up getting deported as a result of that.”
The city of Chicago also took action, adopting a welcoming ordinance in 2013 that generally prohibits disclosure of an individual’s immigration status and bars ICE from city facilities. As a result, police “will never ask an individual’s immigration status,” said department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. Department orders do allow information-sharing with ICE on individuals who appear on lists of alleged gang members.
In both instances, local officials sought to send two messages: that immigrants who had come here illegally were nonetheless valued for their contributions to the area, and that local government was reluctant to spend the money or the resources to take on a federal responsibility.
Prior to passage of the sanctuary ordinance, ICE agents regularly worked with county prosecutors using the Law Enforcement Agencies Data System, or LEADS. Agents would thumb through sheets of new defendants’ backgrounds, looking for those who could be foreign-born nationals. Those suspected of not having the proper paperwork to live legally in the United States would then be interviewed by ICE agents at the jail’s intake area, and a “detainer” would be placed on people ICE wanted held if they were able to post bond.
“We would go at 6 or 7 in the morning to get people released pursuant to detainers, probably about 10 a day,” said James McPeek, assistant field office director with ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations in Chicago. “Once the ordinance started, it went to zero.”
The county’s ordinance seems to have had a clear effect. In the 11 months before the ordinance went into effect, ICE agents issued more than 1,400 detainers to Cook County Jail. In the most recent 12 months for which statistics are available, from October 2015 through September 2016, ICE issued fewer than 70 detainers to the jail.
ICE data for the six-state region of Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin show that 11,786 deportation orders were issued in the year before the ordinance, and 2,326 in 2016, a decrease that could reflect national shifts in policy.
One agency that does co-operate with ICE is the Illinois Department of Corrections. From Jan. 1, 2012, through Dec. 31, 2016, the department released nearly 4,000 inmates to ICE, records show. Most — 2,456 — were from Cook County.
Trump has set his sights on boosting deportations. Days after he was sworn into office, he signed executive orders promising 10,000 new ICE officers and broadening the agency’s directives. A later Department of Homeland Security order directed agents to remove “aliens” convicted of, charged with or even suspected of committing crimes, potentially including offenses like shoplifting or entering the country illegally.
The executive orders differed from Obama administration priorities. Under Obama, ICE focused on immigrants here illegally who had been convicted of serious crimes, were considered threats to national security or had recently crossed the border.
Now facing broader orders to deport individuals, ICE agents in Chicago are still hamstrung by a lack of cooperation and must come up with ways to identify those they want to detain.
At Cook County’s Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago, agents run names from posted bond sheets in the corridors and no longer get cooperation from prosecutors. Those names are fed into a system that cross-references criminal information such as fingerprints with data on everyone DHS has ever come in contact with, including those who entered the United States legally or someone abroad who applied for a visa.
If a foreign national in the criminal justice system is identified, ICE still issues a detainer even though Cook County will not cooperate and hold anyone for them, agency leaders said. What’s more, agents also are not notified by prosecutors or Sheriff Tom Dart’s office when someone they are targeting is released on bond, breaking with past practice, meaning they have to run names through computers available to the general public.
Those who are identified by ICE’s checks often are prioritized based on their crimes. If agents learn that someone they would like to detain has bonded out of the Cook County system, they can attempt to find them at home or somewhere else in the field, which ICE contends can potentially create more dangerous arrest situations.
McPeek said agents are frustrated by a system in Chicago that, from their perspective, makes little sense.
“We could have someone we removed for assault or robbery, who served time in state custody, and we deported them,” McPeek said. “And then he illegally re-entered the United States and gets arrested for a low-level offense, and Cook County says, ‘Oh well, that’s a very low-level offense. We’re not going to honor that detainer.’ ”
“I mean, they don’t honor any of them, but that’s one they wouldn’t honor even though he had a prior criminal conviction that was egregious and he got deported previously,” he said.
As it has ramped up immigration enforcement, the Trump administration has issued vague threats to punish municipalities that don’t aid deportation efforts. Trump also ordered the federal Office of Management and Budget’s director to look into all federal grant money currently received “by any sanctuary jurisdiction.”
In a Fox News interview, Trump said he’s prepared to strip federal dollars from California, for instance.
“If we have to, we’ll defund,” he said.
It’s unclear where the federal government would cut funding, but programs such as the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which helps reimburse local jurisdictions for the cost of incarcerating immigrants, could be vulnerable, according to experts.
Garcia said he believes the county will hold firm against Trump’s threats. The county will, however, honor warrants, a court order that someone be held as opposed to a detainer, which is an ICE request to hold someone to determine their immigration status.
“We uphold the Constitution,” Garcia said. “We do not hold people but for probable cause. Any warrant presented by ICE will be honored in Cook County by the sheriff.”
The county’s ordinance notes that cooperating came with a cost — $43,000 a day for Cook County to hold all of the people on ICE detainers. Requests to hold people would be declined without a written agreement for reimbursement.
Officials said the question of expense is not expected to alter the county’s position on the matter. Frank Shuftan, a spokesman for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, noted that, in 2012, then-ICE Director John Morton offered to reimburse the county for costs incurred by the sheriff.
“President Preckwinkle respectfully declined the offer,” he said. “It was then, and continues to be, our position that immigration enforcement is a responsibility of the federal government, not local jurisdictions or local law enforcement. Simply, the county is not mandated to serve as an immigration enforcement officer on behalf of ICE.”
Whether the federal government and local municipalities escalate their dispute over sanctuary ordinances remains to be seen. Community groups have pledged to monitor ICE’s new push to determine if it has a chilling effect on programs designed to aid immigrants, such as protections offered for younger immigrants by DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order, signed by Obama.
Mark Fleming, national litigation coordinator for the National Immigrant Justice Center, which has been critical of the new administration’s immigration policies, said the office is seeing a rise in arrests.
“And we definitely have seen a ramp-up in the apprehension of individuals who have committed a minimal crime or no crime at all,” Fleming said.
ICE officials, asked if the new administration’s orders were leading to deportations for less serious crimes, said they could not comment beyond pointing to the executive orders themselves.
But from Chicago neighborhoods like Rogers Park to Little Village, organizations are holding talks and passing out leaflets telling residents not to open the doors of their homes to ICE agents without a warrant. Already, activists are seeing an effect of the administration’s directives in the community.
Many immigrants who are here without authorization already don’t want to call attention to themselves in any way, just out of fear, advocates said, even to the point of not reporting that they were the victim of a crime.
“There are communities that are so vulnerable that people are not willing to do anything that might keep them from staying under the radar,” said Bharathi Pillai, a general civil liberties fellow at the ACLU. “They are forced to make a risk assessment.”
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