The Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has written Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, blasting the County’s decision to ignore immigration detainers at Cook County Jail, warning her that the County is likely in violation of federal law.
ICE Director John Morton suggested the County’s decision to release accused criminals back into the community without informing immigration, was a danger to the community.
"The ordinance disrupts the federal government’s efforts to remove deportable criminal offenders from the country, and instead allows for their release back into the community," Morton wrote. "The release of so many of these individuals to the streets of Cook County is deeply troubling, and directly undermines public safety."
Recently, a man charged in a fatal hit and run vanished shortly after his family bonded him out of Cook County Jail, and law enforcement officials conceded he had likely fled to Mexico. Immigration had placed a detainer on the man, Saul Chavez, asking that they be informed if he was released, so that they could place him in federal custody.
In keeping with the new County policy, that request was ignored.
At a press conference Thursday, Preckwinkle said she was "outraged" by what happened to the hit-and-run victim's family, arguing that Chavez's bond was set too low.
She called for a six month study from the Judicial Advisory Council on how bonds are set.
"It was a tragedy that could have been avoided," she said. "But what isn’t fair, or effective, is to use immigration status as a red herring, when this is an issue about public safety for all Cook County residents.
In his letter, Morton noted that since the ordinance was enacted last September, Cook County has defied detainers on 268 individuals, "who have been charged with, or convicted of a crime, including serious and violent offenses like assault on a law enforcement officer." He warned the Cook County president that the County may be in violation of federal law.
"The Immigration and Nationality Act provides that a local government entity may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, [ICE], information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual," Morton wrote. "This provision is designed to ensure that ICE’s ability to enforce immigration law in our communities is not unduly obstructed."
Morton reminded Preckwinkle that the County receives millions of dollars from the federal government to reimburse the costs associated with detaining illegal immigrants and indicated those funds are now in jeopardy. Under that program, known as SCAAP, Cook County received nearly $3.4 million in 2010, and nearly $4.4 million in 2009. The 2011 allotment was $2.29 million.
"It is fundamentally inconsistent for Cook County to request federal reimbursement for the cost of detaining aliens who commit or are charged with crimes, while at the same time thwarting ICE’s efforts to remove those very same aliens from the United States.”
Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider said the ICE director's letter reflects "exactly the concerns that I have."
"Why should the federal government supply us with funds for a program we're not complying with?" he asked.
Schneider said he will attempt to pass an amendment to the ordinance at this month’s County Board meeting to reinstate notifications for certain felonies.
"This is not about immigration," Schneider said. "This is not about race. This is about public safety."
Preckwinkle said she supports an amendment to the detainer ordinance "to ensure that the sheriff has every ability to identify and report information to ICE."
Note: This story has changed from an earlier version that included a comment from Preckwinkle to the Sun-Times about her plans.