Debate over illegal immigrant jailing policy in Chicago

A policy enacted by Chicago’s Cook County is under scrutiny months after taking effect.

In September 2011, Cook County commissioners passed an ordinance stating that jail personnel should ignore federal immigration detainers, as the detainers are not arrest warrants, and inmates should only have to pay their bond, regardless of their citizenship status, to be able to leave detention centers.

The commissioners’ decision was cheered by immigrant rights activists but criticized by others, many of whom are now saying the policy is to blame for a deadly drunk driving crash.

Saul Chavez, who was charged after a deadly June 2011 hit-and-run crash, was only held until his family posted bail for him. While federal agents asked that Chavez, who allegedly holds no immigration forms that give him legal residency, be detained for 48 hours while they considered deportation proceedings, the Cook County jail ignored the federal detainer instructions. Since his release, Chavez has not been seen.

According to a recent letter, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is very unhappy with Cook County’s detainer decision.

“In addition to undermining local public safety, the [ordinance] may also violate federal law,” ICE Director John Morton wrote in his January 4 letter to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

Preckwinkle, who spearheaded Cook County’s stand against detainers, stated that the federal detainer laws have targeted U.S. citizens in the past, and that detainers can add up to expenses that the county jail cannot afford on its current budget.

Preckwinkle also stated that the detainer law was not the problem in Chavez’s case. The bond level of $250,000 was merely set far too low for the crimes allegedly committed by Chavez to ensure that he wouldn’t flee. Preckwinkle continues to stand by the county’s position on detainers, and believes that all residents of Cook County, regardless of whether the accused has permanent residency or not, should be treated the same way in the county’s court system.