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Preckwinkle fires back, defends jail policy to U.S. immigration chief

Updated: January 19, 2012 10:43PM

In a strongly-worded letter to the nation’s immigration chief, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle says the controversial new jail policy she championed doesn’t put public safety at risk and didn’t pave the way for a suspect in a deadly drunken driving crash — believed to be living in the U.S. illegally — to bond out of jail and disappear.

In the letter sent Thursday, Preckwinkle also tells U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton he was reading only part of the law when he suggested the new county policy may violate federal law.

“The federal government can’t compel a local agency to use its resources to enforce federal immigration laws,” she said, a clear reference to keeping inmates for the federal government at the county’s expense.

In September, a majority of county commissioners approved a policy change instructing Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart to ignore ICE “detainers” — requests from federal agents asking the sheriff to notify them when an inmate in a local case is about to be released. Included was a request from the feds to keep suspected undocumented immigrants for 48 hours beyond their scheduled release date so federal agents could question them and, if necessary, begin the deportation process.

The county stopped honoring such detainers, citing fiscal concerns but offered ICE the chance to contract with the jail and pay the $143 a day it costs to house an inmate beyond the scheduled release date.

The policy became a lightning rod for controversy in recent weeks, after Saul Chavez, charged last June in a fatal drunken driving crash, bonded out of jail in November and failed to appear at subsequent court hearings. An ICE detainer had been placed on Chavez, who claims home addresses in Chicago and Mexico, but the jail released him under the new policy.

The family of the 66-year-old victim William “Denny” McCann — killed as he crossed the street in Logan Square — has pointed the finger at Preckwinkle and the county commissioners who backed the ordinance, saying their brother’s alleged killer may never be brought to justice.

Morton seemingly joined in the chorus, with his own letter to Preckwinkle dated Jan. 4th. But Preckwinkle questioned how Morton could criticize her when his agency had five months to pick up Chavez while he sat in jail before he posted the $25,000 bond. She also questioned why immigration officials didn’t detain him long before, when he pleaded guilty in another drunken driving case in 2009.

Preckwinkle reiterated her stance that the bond set in criminal cases is the real issue. “If an individual is charged with a violent offense or is a flight risk then an appropriate bond or no bond should be set to address public safety,” she wrote. “Immigration status should not be the driving force for detainment.”

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