Marlen Garcia: Stand firm on sanctuary ordinances

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If proposed legislation against sanctuary cities eventually is passed by Congress, Cook County and Chicago could lose nearly $4 million in federal funding.

It’s a drop in the bucket compared with their overall operating budgets, but in tough financial times any amount is tough to lose.

Still, Cook County and Chicago should stand firm on the ordinances enacted to enhance cooperation between law enforcement and immigrant communities and to save money, about $15 million a year was the county estimate back when its ordinance passed in 2011. The ordinance also reduced messy liability issues for the county.


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“I think that President [Toni] Preckwinkle, I and other commissioners that voted for the ordinance — and maybe some who voted against it — understand that we did the right thing,” Cook County Board commissioner and former mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia told me this week.

Garcia believes the county would not cave to federal pressure, and that’s important for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants living in Cook County.

The Cook County sanctuary ordinance, like others in place in more than 200 cities and counties across the nation, requires U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to get warrants to detain most undocumented immigrants. Municipalities took these steps because ICE had put them in a bind.

For too long ICE went after undocumented immigrants for minor offenses, such as traffic violations. It was bad business because it left ICE with less time and fewer precious resources to pursue dangerous criminals. It also became expensive for municipalities to house immigrants on the whims of ICE.

The Stop Sanctuary Cities Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, in July in response to the killing of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco allegedly by a Mexican immigrant who had been deported several times only to re-enter illegally. A breakdown between several agencies, and ICE’s notable failure to get a warrant, led to the man being released from police custody months before killing Steinle.

Under the Senate bill, states and municipalities must comply with ICE detainers or risk losing funds under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program and Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program. A bill passed the House in July restricting those funds and those from another policing program.

The Los Angeles Times reported that in the last fiscal year Cook County received $1.3 million from SCAAP and Chicago $2.6 million from JAG.

The Senate bill has a controversial amendment that would impose a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence for undocumented immigrants who re-enter the country after deportation, a change from current law that imposes a maximum of two years. A House bill calls for the same change to imprisonment. It’s known as Kate’s Law, named after Steinle. The Senate amendment has divided Republicans and delayed the bill from being debated by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The mandatory minimum is too severe. It could, for example, hamstring prosecutorial discretion for immigrants guilty of re-entering the country to reunite with children and others who have livelihoods here. Current law already imposes harsher prison penalties for undocumented immigrants with prior removals and serious crime convictions.

Steinle’s killing was horrifying. But legislation that since has been proposed is hasty and ill-conceived. It would punish too many innocent people.

As Garcia told me, “One instance cannot define 11 million people.”


Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @MarlenGarcia777

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