Chicago has long been a sanctuary city for immigrants, stretching back to the late Mayor Harold Washington’s 1985 executive order barring city inquiries about immigration status and mandating that city services be provided to everybody, regardless of status.
Most recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel further strengthened that image and made national headlines in 2012 by proposing limits on when Chicago police could cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
Now, a broad coalition of about a dozen immigrant rights groups are challenging Emanuel to enact tougher restrictions on how police deal with the undocumented. Among other proposals, the coalition wants to prohibit police, as well as other city employees, from even making threats of deportation.
The proposals would make Chicago—where an estimated 183,000 people, or 7 percent of the population, is undocumented—a national leader in pro-immigration policy. The campaign says that their proposals would also encourage more undocumented immigrants to go to the police when they are victims of or witnesses to crimes.
Citing a recent Supreme Court deadlock that blocked an Obama administration program to halt some deportations, as well as growing fears of a possible anti-immigrant Donald Trump presidency, coalition members say their proposals are urgent. They plan a rally Monday evening to urge City Council to consider the amendments at its Wednesday meeting.
The campaign comes at a time when Chicago is already grappling with the broader issue of police accountability and policing reform in communities of color. A high-profile case of police abuse, in which the Chinese-American manager of a tanning salon was threatened with deportation and struck over the head, sparked the involvement of Asian American groups in the campaign.
At a town hall meeting after surveillance video in the case was released, organizers heard “a lot of testimony” from residents who told of being the targets of abusive comments or questions about their immigration status from police, said Van Huynh, a fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Currently, there’s no system to track these incidents. But, Huynh said, “We know these things are happening because people will come into our office and tell us about these issues.”
Tracking police threats, curbing cooperation with immigration authorities
Meanwhile, other groups at the same time were working on a plan to reform the Welcoming City Ordinance and further restrict police cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Activists from the Asian and Latino communities then joined together to craft a reform plan six months ago.
Along with prohibiting police, as well as other city employees, from making deportation threats, the campaign’s proposals would:
- Eliminate exemptions that allow police to work with federal authorities when dealing with undocumented immigrants who are either wanted on a criminal warrant, convicted felons, charged with a felony, or identified gang members.
- Create a system of public accountability under which violations of the ordinance would be reported to either the Independent Police Review Authority or any successor agency; and for non-police employees, the Office of the Inspector General. An annual report on violations would be made publicly available.
- Redefine “coercion” in the municipal code to include verbal threats related to immigration status
Rosi Carrasco of Organized Communities Against Deportation pointed out that exemptions under which police now cooperate with ICE are too broad.
“Take the loophole for people who are defendants in a felony case,” said Carrasco. “What if he or she is not guilty? If you’re still on trial and have charges pending, why should police be able to refer you to ICE?”
Eliminating exemptions is a matter of fairness, said Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
“Police do not routinely arrest people based solely on a prior conviction, or turning up in a gang database. So why should that be used as justification for arresting an [undocumented immigrant]?” Tsao said. “We come back to the basic fundamental fairness of treating people equally regardless of their immigration status, which is what the Welcoming City Ordinance was intended to do.”
It’s unclear how often Chicago police now communicate with or refer people to ICE in cases that fall under the exemptions. An ICE official said the agency does not maintain statistics on collaboration with local law enforcement. The Chicago Police Department asked for more time to respond to a request for data.
The proposals, combined with an existing Cook County ordinance that bars virtually all cooperation with ICE, would make Chicago “one of the more protective communities in the country, if not the most,” according to Tsao. (The county ordinance prohibits the sheriff’s office from turning over an undocumented person to ICE unless federal agents provide a warrant.)
Keeping the streets safe?
Meanwhile, critics of sanctuary policies — as well as federal authorities —point out that blanket policies against cooperation between local police and immigration authorities could pose a danger in some cases, and that cooperation is necessary to keep dangerous criminals off the street.
That issue gained national attention last year after authorities in San Francisco released an undocumented immigrant from jail; the man is now accused of murdering a woman. Local authorities there recently agreed to begin notifying ICE before releasing undocumented immigrants in cases involving violent or multiple felony convictions.
Supporters of strong sanctuary policies, however, say the San Francisco case is an exception and point to analyses of federal government data that show most undocumented immigrants who are deported were accused of minor crimes.
Asked about collaboration between Chicago police and immigration authorities, ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said only that the agency “continues to work cooperatively with our local law enforcement partners throughout the country to uphold public safety. ICE’s heightened enforcement priorities focus on convicted criminals and individuals who threaten public safety and national security.”
Immigration activists say Emanuel’s seal of approval would guarantee City Council passage of the amendments. So far, they say City Hall has been receptive but non-committal. In a statement, a mayoral spokeswoman said that “we are aware of these proposals and are currently working with these groups and other stakeholders to ensure that immigrants from across the globe continue to view Chicago as a great place to settle and make better lives for themselves.”
Activists also note that city officials are pressing to include immigration issues as part of the discussion about police accountability, which was sparked by the release of video last year showing the 2013 killing of black teenager Laquan McDonald by a white police officer.
Some in the campaign worry that the policing reform process will drag on for months, and say the immigration proposals are clear-cut and should be acted on immediately.
Others say including immigrants in the broad reform conversation could be a good thing.
“We cannot divorce these two issues,” said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who supports the proposed amendments. “We want to make sure conversations about immigrant rights are included in the restorative justice and criminal justice reforms.”