Immigrant groups want Welcoming City ordinance strengthened

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Immigration activists held a news conference at City Hall in January, 2017, to push for closing loopholes in Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Chanting “undocumented, unafraid,” immigration activists demanded Thursday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel strengthen Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance by removing all of the exceptions.

Currently, Chicago Police officers are permitted to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement if targeted individuals are: in the city’s gang database; have pending felony prosecutions or prior felony convictions or if they are the subject of an outstanding criminal warrant.

At a City Hall news conference, immigrant activists joined forces with the Black Youth Project to demand that Emanuel eliminate all of those exceptions.

“The carve-outs … make it so that there [are] immigrants who can be targeted for deportation. Someone who is in the gang database, for example, because a police officer decided that they look like someone who’s in a gang can be targeted for deportation without them having any chance to defend themselves,” said Tania Unzueta, legal and policy director for Mijente, a national Latino organization.

“What we want is a city where everyone is protected, regardless of whether they’ve had negative interactions with police. Regardless of whether they have been targeted or criminalized by police,” she said. “With those carve-outs in place, immigrants don’t feel safe in Chicago.”

Unzueta was particularly incensed by the exception made for “pending felony prosecutions.”

“We have a court system in the United States that says people are innocent until proven guilty. It is a complete violation of due process for someone to be considered a dangerous person when they actually haven’t gone through the court system,” she said.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signed a series of executive orders to begin to deliver on his campaign promises on the volatile issue of immigration.

The orders authorized construction of the wall Trump promised to build along the Mexican border and empowered his Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to follow through on his threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities where immigrants can access city services and live without fear of police harassment.

Emanuel responded to the renewed threat by declaring that Chicago will remain a sanctuary city.

The mayor’s promise — and the $1.3 million Legal Protection Fund he has created to support immigrants threatened with deportation under Trump — were not enough to satisfy Janae Bonsu, national police chair for the Black Youth Project.

“While Rahm Emanuel has pledged that Chicago will remain a sanctuary city, the bar for what `sanctuary’ means has been set way too low,” Bonsu said.

“It’s not enough to not cooperate with immigration agents for only some undocumented immigrants. It’s not enough for the city to rely on this ‘good immigrant, bad immigrant’ dichotomy that uses alleged criminal or gang involvement as a marker of exclusion…The Welcoming City ordinance leaves way too many loopholes and leaves the door wide open for the deportation machine to continue and for mass incarceration and criminalization to remain unchecked.”

No aldermen attended Thursday’s news conference because none were invited.

But Ald. Ricardo Munoz (22nd) joined rookie Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) in supporting the drive to eliminate all of the exceptions.

“The Welcoming City ordinance is a good first step. But we need to make sure that it includes all immigrants, [including] people who made mistakes in the past,” Munoz said.

“We want to be fair to all of the families. You’ve got families who have a U.S. citizen, a legal permanent resident and an undocumented all in one household. And if that one undocumented made a mistake — probably got a couple of excessive tickets or maybe even made a mistake that ended up in a lock-up — they should still be able to afford themselves to their rights in this country.”

Chicago’s days as a “sanctuary city,” where undocumented people can access city services and live without fear of police harassment, date back more than 30 years.

In 1985, then-Mayor Harold Washington issued an executive order prohibiting city employees from enforcing federal immigration laws. He made the move to protest the federal government’s decision to question people seeking city services and conduct random searches of city records in an effort to find undocumented immigrants.

Four years later, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley affirmed the executive order. In 2006, the City Council turned the order into law as the immigration debate raged on in Congress.

It prohibited city agencies from asking about the immigration status of people seeking city services. The ordinance also prohibited Chicago Police from questioning the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses or other law-abiding citizens.

Despite that city policy, there remained a legal loophole.

When Chicago Police made a stop, ran a criminal background check and found a deportation order, there was no specific standard on what they should do amid mounting pressure from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to turn them over.

As a result, a 54-year-old mother from Cameroon stopped after failing to signal a turn was detained for two nights in 2012 after police found a deportation order on her record.

The case of Rose Tchakounte — who was turned over to ICE, but never deported — became a cause célèbre for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

In response, Emanuel and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), united behind a so-called “Welcoming City” ordinance that prohibits police from detaining undocumented immigrants unless they are wanted on a criminal warrant or have been convicted of a serious crime.

From a political standpoint, the 2012 news conference was an opportunity for Emanuel to make amends with Gutierrez.

During Emanuel’s days as Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Gutierrez accused Emanuel of standing in the way of immigration reform and being singularly responsible for Obama’s failure to deliver on his campaign promise to Hispanics.

Gutierrez retaliated by endorsing mayoral candidate Gery Chico over Emanuel in the 2011 race for mayor.

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