Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano arrives to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, April 25, 2012, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Secret Service prostitution scandal that embarrassed the White House and overshadowed the president's visit to a Latin American summit.
Two weeks after Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle rejected overtures from the federal government to work toward a compromise on immigration enforcement, two Republican senators blasted the county’s position Wednesday, declaring local citizens are being put at risk.
One of those senators, Republican John Kyl of Arizona, said the county policy of refusing to hold illegal immigrants after they had posted bail, was "jeopardizing American security."
Since last fall, Cook County has refused to hold such suspects, even though they were targeted for federal prosecution. In past years, under what were known as "detainers," such suspects were held until they could be picked up by immigration authorities for deportation hearings. But in September, the county board voted to stop cooperating with the detainer requests.
In one celebrated case, a suspect in a hit-and-run death posted bond, then fled to Mexico where he has now disappeared.
"Cook County is simply not abiding by federal law in detaining officials who have criminal records," Kyl said, noting that the County had defied 432 detainers in recent months.
Staring down Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Kyl asked why the Obama administration had been so aggressive against his state’s stance on illegal immigration while allowing Cook County’s actions to continue.
"You know the federal government has been very aggressive in filing lawsuits against states that are actually trying to do something about illegal immigration, but it doesn’t look to me like the government is doing that much to enforce the law that currently exists with respect to detainers.”
Napolitano answered that she agreed with Kyl that Cook County’s position is "misguided," telling Kyl she was "evaluating all options."
"Cook County’s policy is… unacceptable," said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who asked Napolitano what she was doing to bring the County into compliance.
"Well, as I shared with Senator Kyl, I believe the Cook County ordinance is unwise," Napolitano said. "It’s overbroad."
Earlier this month, Preckwinkle called "premature" efforts by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton to set up a working group to resolve the dispute. Morton had proposed putting Immigration agents inside the jail, and fully covering the costs of holding suspects until those agents could take full custody.
"The more I’ve gotten into it, the more offensive and unjust it seems to me to make distinctions between people based on their documentation," Preckwinkle told the Chicago Tribune. "Equal justice before the law is more important to me than budgetary considerations."
During Wednesday’s hearing, Sessions questioned why the Obama administration was withholding funding for an immigration program in his home state, because of its strict stance on illegal enforcement, while at the same time, allowing Cook County to seemingly flaunt the federal law.
"I’m uneasy about it," Sessions told Napolitano. "It seems to me the state was targeted because their law was not popular with the department -- with the President -- whereas he has not taken to date any firm action against Cook County, which clearly endangers, I think, the people of Cook County and the country."
Napolitano told Sessions her department was "trying to work with the county to see if there is a resolution."