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ICE detainers costly, unfair

Updated: November 10, 2011 10:44AM

Anti-immigrant activists already are hard at work muddying the waters about a simple Cook County ordinance that passed 10-5 last week.

It prohibits the county sheriff from continuing to comply with detainer requests from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless the federal government agrees to reimburse the county for the costs associated with holding individuals in jail beyond their authorized time of release. These costs are estimated to exceed $15.7 million a year.

The county ordinance was the product of a collaborative effort by my office, County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Sheriff Tom Dart.

In the past, local officials complied with these requests from ICE as a matter of course, and taxpayers footed the bill because they believed that compliance was mandatory, but it is not. Thanks to a recent federal court decision, it is clear that these detainers are merely intergovernmental requests for cooperation — requests that the sheriff can legally decline.

There is a widespread misconception that ICE detainer requests serve a public safety function, and that this ordinance will result in the indiscriminate release of dangerous criminals into our communities. Although that is what anti-immigrant activists would like you to think, that is not the case. Detainers are not criminal warrants. Our criminal justice system already guards against the release of dangerous criminals.

Although we pride ourselves in having a system that presumes everyone is innocent until proved guilty, no one is released from the sheriff’s custody on bond unless and until a judge determines that person does not pose a significant risk to public safety. The law makes no exception for people born in other countries. This ordinance would not result in the release of anyone who is not already entitled to their freedom.

This ordinance represents a return to the American values that we hold in highest regard; values that are rooted in our founders’ aspirations for our great nation; values that are codified in the Constitution of the United States: equal protection and justice for all. Ours is not a nation that distinguishes between individuals based on race, creed or national origin when it comes to due process.

By passing this ordinance, Cook County affirms that it will not perpetuate a practice that plunders our limited resources. Here are the facts:

Before this ordinance went into effect, Cook County was spending an estimated $15.7 million of your hard-earned tax dollars a year to keep in custody people whose charges had been dropped, or whose cases had been dismissed, or who had been found eligible for bond by a judge.

Local law enforcement reported that their cooperation with federal immigration enforcement had a chilling effect that discouraged victims and key witnesses of crimes from coming forward. This culture of silence put all of us at risk because it made it harder to investigate and fight crime.

Most of the people who were targeted by ICE were never convicted of a crime, and much less a serious one.

What is worse is that the sheriff held more than 200 individuals pursuant to these detainers on a daily basis, but ICE regularly picked up only three to nine. When it costs Cook County more than $143 a night to house each detainee, and ICE picks up fewer than 5 percent of the people it asks us to hold, that quickly adds up to a lot of wasted money.

At a time like this, when Cook County anticipates a $315 million shortfall for the next fiscal year and is struggling to provide quality services without laying off essential personnel, we cannot continue to divert local taxpayer dollars to foot the bill for the federal government’s indulgence.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia represents the 7th District.

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