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Cook County gets out of the immigration enforcement business

Updated: November 9, 2011 5:59PM

Cook County commissioners took a bold step toward getting local government out of the immigration enforcement business last week by ordering Sheriff Tom Dart to end the practice of holding jail inmates for federal immigration authorities.

County officials say this is now the only jurisdiction in the U.S. that won’t honor requests by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to continue detaining suspected illegal immigrants once they’ve posted bond or completed their court cases on other criminal charges.

Before this, ICE agents had 48 hours to pick up those individuals for possible deportation before their release from County Jail.

While I think this was a good move, it’s a complicated matter, as exemplified by the fence-sitting of Dart himself on the issue. While his office worked with proponents to help draft the new ordinance, Dart declined to take a position either for or against the finished product.

The sheriff’s office has now released data from the first week since the County Board approved the ordinance, which helps clarify the practical effect of ignoring ICE detainers — and perhaps Dart’s mixed feelings.

In that time, sheriff’s personnel have released 23 individuals who previously would have been turned over to immigration authorities — 17 involved persons charged with felonies and six with misdemeanors.

I don’t have the particulars on each case, but they range in seriousness from two batteries of police officers to two individuals charged with driving without a license.

There were also five DUIs, three drug cases, a residential burglary, an aggravated discharge of a firearm, a domestic battery and possession of a fake ID.

All involved persons with Hispanic names.

Nearly all posted bond, the highest in the bunch set at $25,000, which meant nobody had to come up with more than $2,500.

The burglar got probation. A couple of the DUIs got time served.

In other words, they were treated the same as anyone else in the criminal justice system, and your views would undoubtedly be all across the spectrum as to whether that means too lenient or too harsh. We also might disagree on which of these cases, if convicted, would warrant expulsion from the U.S.

I realize many would say: this is terrible, look at all those criminals going scot-free.

And I would remind you we turn ACCUSED criminals like these loose every day with the understanding they are expected to appear in court until the completion of their cases — and that judges working in cooperation with prosecutors and defense lawyers make a determination of a reasonable bail to achieve that purpose.

To the extent any of those 23 pose a danger to the community, that really has little or nothing to do with their immigration status.

Anticipating your possible objections, I would agree one difference here is that illegal immigrants might have less reason to come back to court — which is why state law allows judges to take immigration status into account when setting bail.

Keep in mind that when an illegal immigrant is convicted of a crime and sentenced to state prison, ICE can and does issue a separate detainer to hold the prisoner to be deported once they complete their sentence.

Most of the individuals facing ICE detainers in county jail at any one time aren’t going anywhere because they are accused of serious crimes for which there is no bail or a high bail.

According to the sheriff, of the 9,000 inmates at Cook County Jail in July, some 278 had ICE detainers. Those included many individuals I would agree deserve to be deported if convicted, including 47 on charges of criminal sexual assault, 29 accused of murder and 20 for armed robbery or theft.

On the other hand, there were two being held for having a revoked driver’s license.

What often has happened in the past is that even individuals with a low bail did not post bond to get out of jail because they did not want to get swept up by ICE.

Department of Homeland Security officials argue there is no more logical place for them to start removing the 11 million people believed to be in this country illegally than with those identified by local law enforcement authorities as having committed crimes in this country — unfortunately, I would add, even if they aren’t convicted of those crimes.

A DHS official told me the agency has not decided how to respond to the new Cook County policy but will continue to request detainers here as the most efficient means of immigration enforcement.

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