Blog Archive

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cook County, an immigrant sanctuary at risk

By Ana-Maria Udrica
Medill School of Journalism
March 02, 2011

Arrest and Deportation ICE Charts2

These U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics are cumulative and were calculated from the date Illinois activated Secure Communities on Nov. 24, 2009. They can be found in ICE’s online FOIA Reading Room.

Significant numbers of non-criminal immigrants are being arrested and deported from Illinois through a federal program designed to identify and remove convicted criminal aliens from the United States.

According to the most recent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics, 78 percent of immigrants arrested between November 2009 and October 2010 through Illinois’ Secure Communities program had no criminal convictions. Of those deported, 53 percent were not criminals.

The statistics are based on the 26 counties that participate in Secure Communities. Cook County is not one of them and, in the face of mounting pressure from ICE, immigration advocates who highlight the program’s failures are working to keep it that way.

“It’s catching the wrong people,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “ICE should be focusing on convicted criminals. Instead, they’re just catching speeders.”


ICE spokeswoman Cori Bassett described Secure Communities as “a comprehensive initiative to modernize the criminal alien enforcement process.”

According to the agreement between ICE and state police, the goal of Secure Communities is to identify aliens in custody who are charged with or convicted of a serious criminal offense, and prioritize their removal.

“Instead, what they’re doing is catching people on the front end,” Tsao said. “They’re catching people after they’ve just been arrested.”

Those who work with the undocumented said many are stopped for minor infractions such as front window obstruction caused by a rosary hanging over their rearview mirror. They are subsequently arrested for driving without a license and taken to police stations to be fingerprinted.

Fingerprints are normally run through the FBI’s criminal database. Under Secure Communities, they are also scanned by ICE’s immigration database, which instructs local law enforcement agencies if the individual should be turned over to ICE.

Generally, the database flags people with prior convictions and those not in the database, who are presumed to be undocumented.

The Department of Homeland Security fingerprints and keeps track of people who enter the U.S. legally.

Tsao said the database also includes people arrested at the border, people who had their charges dropped and people who posted bond or were acquitted, in addition to those who are convicted.

“And then convicted of what? It could be shoplifting. It could be a simple battery, it could be any minor traffic violation ranging all the way up to rape and murder, but there’s no distinction,” Tsao said. “Here in Illinois a traffic violation combined with driving without a license can get escalated to a felony.”

Immigrant advocacy groups criticize Secure Communities for deporting both these people and those who are undocumented.

“The number of deportations is increasing,” said Yesenia Sanchez from the West Suburban Action Project.

“Last year [the U.S.] had the highest rate of deportations. Almost 400,000 people were deported. That means 400,000 families were impacted, destroyed and uprooted from the communities they’re helping bring up,” Sanchez said.

“We’re fighting for those who have no criminal records,” she added.

But an ICE official said the program “has yielded historic results – including the removal of more convicted criminal aliens for the fiscal year 2010 than ever before” and arrested “more than 62,000 convicted criminal aliens, including more than 23,000 convicted of major violent offenses like murder, rape, and the sexual abuse of children.”

In relation to undocumented immigrants, the official said that “while non-criminal aliens identified through Secure Communities may have no recorded criminal conviction, they may have one or more immigration violations that make them subject to removal.”


Immigration Attorney Matthew Kriezelman said, “It is not specifically made a crime to be here illegally.”

“However, if you enter illegally, you can be fined or imprisoned for up to six months and for up to two years if it is a repeat offense.”

Overstaying a non-immigrant visa such as a student or tourist visa is also not a crime, but violators “are technically subject to removal the day after their visa runs out,” Kriezelman said.

Although being undocumented does not lead to automatic deportation, and different circumstances can influence the outcome, “you can definitely be deported for being undocumented. It’s as plain as it can get in immigration law,” said Diego Bonesatti, a former Board of Immigration-accredited appeals representative.

Through Secure Communities, Tsao said, “It is somewhat safe to assume that people who are deported for non-criminal reasons are being deported for the most part for not having lawful status.”

Legally, undocumented immigrants can be deported with or without the program, but Bonesatti said Secure Communities “is not an issue so much of the law as the policy.”

“In general most pro-immigrant groups would have less of a problem if ICE is going to focus most of its resources going after people who have committed serious crimes.”

Instead, Tara Tidwell Cullen, communications coordinator at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said, “ICE continues to say they’re going after the most dangerous criminals, but, over and over, statistics just don’t show that that’s who they’re targeting in reality.”

For ICE, even though non-criminals may not have committed a crime, their immigration violations “make them subject to removal and are priorities for ICE to remove due to reasons such as visa overstay, illegal entry, illegal re-entry after removal, fugitive from a final order of removal issued and known documented gang affiliation.”


By 2013, ICE plans to implement Secure Communities nationwide.

“One of our greatest challenges in identifying criminal aliens is access to timely and accurate information about foreign nationals who commit dangerous crimes when they are arrested and in the custody of a state or local law enforcement agency,” ICE spokeswoman Cori Bassett said.

“Full implementation of Secure Communities will ensure a ‘virtual ICE presence’ in every jail and prison in the country [and] this will enable ICE to identify and remove those criminal aliens who pose the greatest threat to our communities.”

Nine entire states have signed on as of March 1, but in Illinois, only 25 percent of counties participate.

According to an internal document dated Jan. 2, ICE recommends dealing with jurisdictions that do not wish to participate by creating a “ring of interoperability” around the resistant site.

This is the case for Cook County, the largest county in Illinois and home to 600,000 non-citizens, according to ICIRR’s statistics. All the counties surrounding Cook participate in the program.

“Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has so far resisted pressure to sign up for Secure Communities,” Tsao said, “but that pressure is going to continue.”

Chicago and Cook County both have sanctuary ordinances that prevent police officers from inquiring about immigration status and working with ICE on investigating or pursuing anyone about their immigration status.

Despite this, a Dart spokesman confirmed ICE has an office on the first floor of the criminal courts building in Cook County. He said it “is not our building and we were not involved in that placement.”

The Cook County Board President’s office did not respond to the Medill News Service’s inquiries about the ICE office, but immigration groups say ICE agents operate between the Cook County courthouse and Cook County jail, and sometimes don’t distinguish themselves from local law enforcement.

Although there are no ICE agents in the jail proper, the complex at 26th and California is public and, Tsao said, “There is a somewhat large holding area between the jail and the courthouse where ICE agents roam fairly freely. It seems like they are somehow able to identify individuals by name who they want to question further. We’re not sure how they get that information. We just don’t know.”

ICIRR is investigating the matter because they said there appears to be cooperation between ICE and the state’s attorney’s office. The state’s attorney’s office did not return calls.

Dart declined to comment about Secure Communities and ICE, but his office has posted signs throughout the jail holding areas alerting people to the immigration rights they have.

“It’s not that Cook County isn’t in Secure Communities,” Bonesatti said. “It’s that the agents are there themselves and they’re questioning people who have been detained,” making the sanctuary provision, he said, “irrelevant.”

It is unclear whether municipalities such as Chicago can sign up for Secure Communities on their own. According to ICIRR, the decision involves the county and state police. The state police could decide to make the program statewide, but have so far respected Cook County’s resistance.

In addition to investigating the ICE presence in Cook County, immigration advocates are working toward a Smart Enforcement policy at the state, county and municipal level.

ICIRR’s report states that this policy would bring Secure Communities in line with its original intention of identifying convicted criminals, so that ICE and local law enforcement can focus on the truly harmful, instead of those immigrants who pose no threat and contribute to their communities.

Secure Communities

Ana-Maria Udrica/MEDILL

As of March 1, 25 percent of Illinois counties participate in Secure Communities. Cook County is not one of them, but every county around Cook participates and, according to ICE documents, creates a “ring of interoperability” around a “resistant site” is part of a tactical approach for dealing with jurisdictions that do not wish to participate. (State-by-state report from ICE)

Cumulative deportations and arrests_updated data from ICE

By Ana-Maria Udrica/MEDILL

ICE states that previous data they publish is subject to change based on a short list of potential factors, but when ICIRR saw the cumulative numbers drop in the days leading up the release of their report, they began to question ICE’s accuracy.

The cumulative total for non-criminals arrested in and deported from Illinois dropped from October to November.

“ICE is clearly playing with the numbers in Illinois,” an addendum to their report states. 
“Either its previous numbers were faulty, or the most recent numbers (November 2010) are. In either case, the noncriminal share of arrests and removals in Illinois still far exceed the national figures, and the program remains deeply flawed.”

Immigrant Rights Advice Poster

Courtesy of the Cook County Sheriff's office

Posters with the following information are posted throughout the Cook County Jail holding areas in English, Polish and Spanish to alert immigrants of the rights they have.

By Ana-Maria Udrica/MEDILL

Rachel Heuman, an immigration activist from Evanston, said unofficial estimates suggest that 20 percent of people who are deported could have been saved from deportation had they known their rights. In this video, Heuman discusses the Miranda rights and difficulty she has earning the trust of the immigrant community she is trying to inform through the Know Your Rights campaign. For further information please contact her at or watch the official “Know Your Rights” video from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

The effect of Secure Communities on local communities and police

“If the police are occupied in being part of this infrastructure for detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants who don’t have criminal records, it’s taking away from their time and their jail space,” said Diego Bonasetti, a former Board of Immigration-accredited appeals representative. “It’s diminishing their resources for criminal investigations.”

ICIRR and immigration advocates agree. They also argue that Secure Communities imposes unfunded mandates on municipalities and taxpayers who pay for the costs associated with detaining, guarding and providing food and health care to detainees, often beyond the allotted 48 hours ICE has to pick up people from local jails.

Additionally, Bonasetti said the way Secure Communities operates creates mistrust between the police and immigrant communities. He said those who work with the undocumented find that they are reluctant to come forward about crimes, whether as witnesses or victims.

Responding to the above, an official at the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement office said:

“ICE’s use of the federal biometric information-sharing capability requires no change to law enforcement agencies’ customary booking process. And, law enforcement agencies that use digital fingerprint scanners incur no additional cost. State and local law enforcement officers’ role is to continue enforcing their state or local law in the same manner in which they have always performed. They do not take a federal immigration enforcement role with Secure Communities. In fact, Secure Communities does not authorize, nor permit, state or local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law. ICE retains that authority.”

This is where immigration activists say there is a divide between reality and the program’s intent.

“What ICE is doing is going county by county, asking if they can put this database into their system. We want to catch criminals and terrorists. And the counties are saying, 'Yes, of course, put it in.' What they’re not telling them is how much it’s going to cost and who it’s detaining. Some of the counties, some of the sheriffs, from the conversations that we’ve had, said they don’t support this. But they already have it [and can’t opt out],” said Yesenia Sanchez from the West Suburban Action Project.

“They tell them this is going to mean more money for your community and police force, it’s going to help keep peace in your community, and it all sounds very lovely, but this is why Evanston Chief of Police Eddington and I had a talk last week. I just wanted to make sure he knew what Secure Communities was and how it worked, and to be aware of it and be informed when and if he were to be approached,” said Rachel Heuman, an immigration activist.