Study Suggests More Loopholes in Chicago's Sanctuary Law

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A study released Tuesday suggests lingering loopholes allow Chicago police to share information with federal immigration authorities, despite activists’ hard-fought victory to strengthen the city's sanctuary protections this year.

The 19-page report produced by a University of Chicago professor and immigrant rights groups indicates when police can give information to immigration agencies under the federal Department of Homeland Security. That includes the city’s much-maligned gang database as well as data collected at high-tech information centers from an extensive camera network, license plate readers and gunshot detection systems.

“The sizable trove of information about Chicago residents in the hands of the police creates an enormous danger for the city’s immigrant communities,” the report said. Chicago police "continue to use a vast network of technologies, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement can employ to target immigrants despite the Welcoming City Ordinance's protections."

Chicago bolstered its sanctuary protections in February when Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed a plan describing limited circumstances when police can work with immigration agents, including if a person living in the country without legal permission has an outstanding criminal warrant or is named in the gang database.

However, the report raises questions about existing operations, saying Chicago police policies allow outside law enforcement agencies to access data from an information center as long as there is “criminal predicate." The department does not explain what that means, with activists suggesting it could include a law that criminalizes improper border crossings.

Part of the issue is the lack of information on how the centers operate, according to the report. Researchers relied in part on Freedom of Information Act requests, many of which were withheld.

“It’s very unclear to us what sort of check is being done to make sure that the reason that information is being requested is valid,” said Nicole Hallett, an associate clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago.

Chicago’s first high-tech fusion center was created in 2007 and is staffed by police and outside agents including from the Illinois State Police and Homeland Security. A decade later, the city created local versions to help process the massive data influx.

Authorities have praised the centers for fostering collaboration in investigations and the availability of real-time information to dispatch officers to fight crime. But civil rights groups have raised concerns about the type of surveillance and privacy in cities including Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Austin, Texas. Several states have limited the use of facial recognition over fears of civil rights violations and racial bias.

“We are over-surveilled as a city,” said Kevin Herrera of Just Futures Law, a group that helped with the report. “The degree that CPD has access to our images constantly and advance additional surveillance doesn’t make us safer and enhances the vulnerability of the immigrant community.”

For instance, questions have been raised about the accuracy of the methods.

Last month, the MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University’s law school, and other groups said in a court filing that gunshot detection routinely reports gunshots where there are none, sending police into largely Black and Latino areas for “unnecessary and hostile” encounters.

The city has also lagged in replacing its error-riddled gang database, which has been shared with hundreds of outside agencies. A Chicago Office of Inspector General audit in 2019 showed that of the roughly 134,000 people listed, roughly 95% were Black or Latino. While the department promised to overhaul it, a follow-up audit in March showed continued use of the “deeply flawed” system.

Messages left Tuesday for Chicago police and Lightfoot's office weren’t immediately returned.

Still, top city officials argue that using technology such as gunshot detection and the fusion centers is essential for solving crimes. Last month, Lightfoot called the combination of technologies “a lifesaver.”

The report called for further changes to Chicago’s sanctuary protections to specify that information cannot be shared on immigration-related offenses, to end use of the gang database and to offer more transparency on how the police department collects and processes personal information.

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