One afternoon in September, immigration activists and religious leaders joined politicians standing proudly outside the Cook County Clerk’s Office to celebrate a “victory for immigrant rights.”

“We are committed to the protection of all citizens of Cook County and improving the treatment of immigrants,” said Cook County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, who had earlier voted along with nine others to approve an ordinance that will end the practice of holding Cook County Jail inmates for immigration purposes.

Under the Fair and Equal County for Immigrants ordinance, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart can decline to enforce an immigration-hold request, also known as a “detainer,” unless the federal government agrees in writing to reimburse the county for the cost of detention. The ordinance also bars immigration agents from having access to county jail inmates without a criminal warrant.

“The practice of detaining people by the sheriff was also eroding the trust and relationship between residents of various communities,” said Garcia, who drafted the ordinance. “It was undermining public safety.”

Cook County’s ordinance is among the first enacted in the country designed to resist Secure Communities, a controversial federal program that aims to deport immigrants who have been arrested by local law enforcement agencies.

Amalia Pallares, associate professor of political science and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the spirit of the ordinance could be emulated in other counties.

“It is about the rights of immigrants,” said Pallares, who also co-edited a book about immigration activism in Chicago. “Every local government has to figure out what makes sense to them, but the spirit can be used to uphold the rights of undocumented immigrants who don’t have a criminal background.”

As of Aug. 31, immigration detainers were issued for 342 inmates among the daily average population of about 9,000 at Cook County Jail, shows a Chicago Reporter analysis of Cook County inmate reports. Last year, 1,665 inmates were placed under immigration hold.
About 87 percent have been charged with a felony, and the rest had a misdemeanor charge, the analysis shows.

Since the ordinance was approved, 48 inmates—36 of them with felony charges—have been released after they posted bond, said Steve Patterson, a spokesman for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office.

It costs $143 a day to house an inmate at the county jail. By not holding inmates, Garcia said, the ordinance would save the county $15 million a year. Patterson said that number is actually smaller—about $250,000—a year.

A recent federal court ruling cleared the way for the ordinance. An Indiana court case ruled in June that the detainer requests made by immigration enforcement officials are only a request and not criminal warrants.

The ordinance also came after immigration activists rallied around what they say is a flawed implementation of Secure Communities, Garcia said.

Many undocumented immigrants were being booked into immigration custody after an arrest but not conviction, he said.

The Reporter analysis of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security records bears out his claim. In Illinois, 46 percent of 3,023 people who were booked into immigration custody between Nov. 24, 2009, and July 25, 2011, were never charged with, or convicted of, the crimes for which they were arrested, the analysis shows.

Cook County’s unease with Secure Communities began to surface in April 2009, when the sheriff’s office opted not to share fingerprints of its arrestees with the homeland security department.

“We were trying to get answers from [the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] about Secure Communities,” Patterson said. “We got a lot of runarounds and conflicting answers.”

Nicole Nava, spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the ordinance would release criminals back into communities instead of deporting them.

Her agency “places detainers on aliens arrested on criminal charges to ensure that dangerous criminals are not released from prisons/jails and into our communities,” Nava wrote.

Nava offered three examples of undocumented immigrants being released back to Cook County, including the release of a 32-year-old Mexican charged with a felony and traffic offenses after running a red light and then punching the officer who arrested him.

Garcia said the ordinance was needed to clarify any confusion and to stop immigration enforcement overreach. The ordinance will also protect the county from liability in cases where immigration officials ask the county to hold someone they wrongly suspect as being undocumented.

“We don’t detain people without probable cause,” he said. “That would violate constitutional guarantees like due process and equal protection. But these detainers are not based on probable cause.”

Contributing: Crystal Vance Guerra

María Inés Zamudio covers immigration as part of WBEZ's race, class and communities team. She's previously served on investigative teams for American Public Media, the Memphis Commercial Appeal and The...