Mayor Rahm Emanuel likes to talk a big game on immigration.
When President Donald Trump threatened in April to bus thousands of federal immigrant detainees to Chicago, Emanuel said he would welcome them “with open arms.” Two days later, as a guest on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Emanuel said everything Trump’s built “has been built by undocumented immigrants.”
Those comments capped Emanuel’s quest to transform himself from a Washington, D.C., insider who advised President Bill Clinton in 1996 to achieve “a record number of deportations” into a champion of immigrants.
Under Emanuel, the city set up a legal defense fund for immigrants facing deportation, created a municipal ID program available to all Chicagoans and made some city agencies more accessible for non-English speakers.
The mayor also opened the Office of New Americans in 2011, which connects immigrants with local nonprofits and city services, and expanded the Welcoming City ordinance in 2012 to bar police from detaining most immigrants simply for being undocumented.
But Emanuel was generally a follower — not a leader — in Chicago’s immigrant rights movement. He took many cues from the city’s immigrant activists and organizers who often had to fight the mayor to turn their proposals into policies.
“Policies passed under Emanuel ultimately show the importance of grassroots organizing,” Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) said. “You had a group of people who were directly impacted — immigrants, advocates, legal experts and others — coming together to push the mayor enough that he felt compelled to implement policies Chicago’s immigrant community advocated for.”
Emanuel reflected on his legacy during a naturalization ceremony at City Hall on May 6.
“Since my first days in office I have sought to make Chicago the most immigrant-friendly city in the world,” he said. The city’s future, he added, hinges on its ability to “further [its] legacy as a welcoming city for every family who wants to make Chicago their home.”
Chicago certainly became a safer place for immigrants under Emanuel, but “the most immigrant-friendly city in the world?”
By the numbers
Roughly 564,000 people living in Chicago were born outside of the United States, making up about 21% of the city’s population. Of those, an estimated 180,000 are undocumented.
Three countries account for a little more than half of all immigrants in the city: Mexico (40%), China (6%) and Poland (6%). The rest of the city’s immigrants come from 140 different countries.
The number of Latin American immigrants in Chicago dropped by 14% during Emanuel’s two terms, with the number of Mexicans living in the city falling to a 40-year low. The number of Asian immigrants rose by 21%.
Immigrants are an economic engine for the city. One in three entrepreneurs in Chicago is an immigrant, and together they generated $659 million in business income in 2016, according to a report from the Office of New Americans.
Welcoming city — for some
Immigrant rights advocates argue Emanuel’s legacy is undermined by what he chose not to do. At the top of their list is his reluctance to close loopholes in the Welcoming City ordinance.
The ordinance, which dates back to an executive order issued by Mayor Harold Washington in 1985, prohibits city agencies from asking about the immigration status of people seeking city services.
Emanuel expanded the ordinance in 2012 by adding language that prohibits police from detaining undocumented immigrants for immigration infractions — unless they have an outstanding criminal warrant, prior felony convictions, a pending felony prosecution, or if they’re listed in the city’s so-called “gang database.”
Those exceptions irked many advocates who argued Chicago’s criminal justice system unfairly targets blacks and Latinos. Using it as a benchmark to determine which immigrants get handed over to the feds, they said, was unjust and unreliable.
Advocates pushed back the hardest against the gang database, which has been routinely criticized by civil liberties groups since its inception in 1997.
There are more than 134,000 people listed on the database, according to an audit by the Chicago Office of Inspector General published in April. Officers with the Chicago Police Department can classify someone as a gang member even if the person wasn’t arrested or even accused of committing a crime. Those who are listed in the database cannot contest their inclusion.
Some 25,000 people in the database are listed as being a member of multiple gangs. Nearly 16,000 people had no gang membership listed at all. Ninety-five percent of people on the gang database are identified as either black or Latino.
The OIG concluded that CPD “cannot confirm that all of its gang designations are accurate and up to date” or “ensure that CPD members designate individuals as gang members with sufficient, reliable evidence corroborating actual gang involvement.”
Despite these flaws, as many as 500 government agencies can access the database —including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which conducted 12,000 queries of the database between 2009 and 2018, according to the audit.
One of those queries came back with the name “Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez,” a 33-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. Police listed him on the database twice: Once after pulling him over for allegedly running a stop sign in 2015 and again for “loitering” outside of his house with his friends and neighbors in 2016.
Based on the information in the database, several ICE agents barged into Catalan-Ramirez’s house in the Back of the Yards neighborhood in March 2017 and arrested him in front of his wife and two kids. Catalan-Ramirez sued the city, several police officers and the ICE agents, claiming he wasn’t a gang member and that the information in the city database was false.
ICE detained Catalan-Ramirez for nearly a year, releasing him only after he agreed to drop his lawsuit.
“For me, being with my children has no price, and that’s why I decided to agree to the deal,” Catalan-Ramirez said through an interpreter in January 2018, a week after he was released from custody. “I am not a gang member. Just because I live in a bad area of the city doesn’t mean I’m a gang member.”
A month before ICE agents came for Catalan-Ramirez, Ald. Ramirez-Rosa introduced an amendment to cross out the four exceptions in the Welcoming City ordinance. The amendment had 28 co-sponsors, but it never made it out of a City Council committee.
“The mayor’s office was unwilling to move on the Welcoming City ordinance because they didn’t want to appear as being soft on crime,” Ramirez-Rosa said.
In August 2017, the city of Chicago sued the Justice Department after then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved to withhold federal law enforcement money from local governments that did not fully cooperate in arresting and detaining undocumented immigrants.
Chicago has won every round of litigation, but the Justice Department continues to appeal those decisions.
“Chicago will continue to defend its Welcoming City Ordinance, which speaks to both our values as a welcoming city, as well as promotes public safety in our city. It is a commitment to ensuring that no city resident or visitor, regardless of immigration status, should be afraid to cooperate with law enforcement, as well as ensuring our police officers can focus on criminal activity occurring in Chicago instead of federal civil immigration infractions,” a City Hall representative said.
“Despite continuous attacks from the Trump administration and others who have chosen to criticize our efforts, Chicago remains deeply committed to protecting the rights of our immigrant and refugee communities.”
‘I’m very grateful to the mayor’
One of Emanuel’s greatest achievements was widening postsecondary education opportunities for Chicago’s undocumented youth.
There are an estimated 19,000 children in Chicago who are undocumented, along with 28,000 young adults ages 18 to 24. Many of them are so-called “Dreamers” — young immigrants protected from deportation under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The Chicago STAR Scholarship, which launched in 2014, allows Chicago Public Schools high school graduates who earned a 3.0 GPA to enroll for free in any of the seven City Colleges. The scholarship also pays for students’ books.
From the get-go, the scholarship was open to all undocumented CPS students.
There are no official numbers on how many undocumented students take advantage of the scholarship. An analysis from USA TODAY showed 20% of the scholarship’s 3,000 recipients in 2017 reported they were ineligible for federal aid, which suggests they are not U.S. citizens.
Arturo Urquiza, a 22-year-old “Dreamer” from Albany Park, was one of those students.
Urquiza was 4 years old when his family moved from Mexico City to Chicago. He graduated from Lane Tech in 2015 and went on to Wilbur Wright College to study computer science under the STAR Scholarship.
After earning an associate’s degree in 2017, Urquiza transferred to the University of Illinois at Chicago. He graduated last week with a bachelor’s degree and has a job lined up with Capital One in its software department. His first day is in August.
“The STAR Scholarship covers your tuition and your books. You don’t have to worry about anything except your education,” he said. “I graduated debt-free, and the whole way through I’ve been at peace. I’ve been able to focus on my studies.
“It’s interesting how a city can have such a big impact on people’s lives. I’m very grateful to the mayor.”
Emanuel had a role in setting up two other scholarships for undocumented students: The CPS Dream Fund Scholarship and the Illinois Dream Fund. Early in his first term, the mayor also pushed CPS to implement new training for counselors and career coaches to better understand the needs of undocumented students. According to the city, Chicago was the first school system in the country to require this training.
Another win for Emanuel came in December 2016 when the City Council approved his plan to divert $1.3 million from unclaimed property tax rebates to create a legal defense fund for immigrants and refugees.
Unlike U.S. citizens, immigrants in deportation proceedings do not have a right to public counsel. Studies show that legal representation greatly increases an immigrant’s chances of beating a deportation case. Low-income immigrants who receive free legal help are also much more likely to become U.S. citizens and permanent residents.
The fund pays for legal screening through the National Immigrant Justice Center, a nonprofit legal aid organization run by Heartland Alliance. The fund also provides grants to other nonprofits that help immigrants navigate the citizenship process.
Since January 2017, the fund has paid for more than 1,600 know-your-rights trainings that have been attended by nearly 60,000 people, according to the Office of New Americans. The NIJC said it has conducted nearly 4,000 legal consultations and provided legal representation in 2,100 cases through the fund so far.
Jorge Jacobo, 19, his mom and two older sisters are among many immigrants who’ve been able to become lawful permanent residents through the legal protection fund. The Jacobos received their green cards in January 2018, allowing them to travel out of the country and have greater work opportunities.
“If it wasn’t for the NIJC, I don’t know where I’d be right now,” said Jacobo, who was 2 months old when his family walked across the U.S.-Mexico border. “Getting a green card has been life changing. Before, my mom would have to work two jobs and get paid under the table. Now, we’re protected.”
Mary McCarthy, director of the NIJC, said the program has proved “invaluable” but wishes it were expanded.
“Universal representation would be ideal,” she said. “It would make a major difference in the community, especially now when we’ve seen these unprecedented attacks against immigrants and asylum-seekers.”
Chicago is one of 30 cities and counties nationwide that provide some form of tax-funded legal services for immigrants, according to The Washington Post.
Late to the party
CityKey is a municipal ID card launched in April 2018 with a mission to “give Chicagoans the dignity and peace of mind that comes along with having a government-issued ID.” It also serves as a library card and a Ventra card.
During the rollout, Emanuel touted how it would benefit the city’s immigrant community. “The CityKey will bring communities that are on the periphery, on the sideline, into our city,” he said. “If you want somebody who’s undocumented to feel comfortable … they have to be part of the city.”
More than 30,000 people have enrolled in the program. It’s unclear how many of those are undocumented immigrants, but researchers from the University of Chicago who surveyed about 7,000 participants found that nearly half of them — 46% — were non-U.S. citizens.
In an interview for the university’s website, assistant professor Angela Garcia, one of the study’s three co-principal investigators, said the program has been embraced by many immigrants across the city.
“I arrived at an enrollment site 30 minutes before it opened last July. Around 50 people were in line already. . . . The first person in line was a man from Colombia who said he’d been there since 2 a.m. That’s indicative of how strong the demand is, how eager people are for the card,” she said.
The CityKey came after years of meetings between the Emanuel administration and dozens of community stakeholders. Fred Tsao, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the program serves as a blueprint for future administrations on how to implement immigrant-led initiatives in Chicago.
“Not only is the program beneficial for immigrants as well other target communities — the homeless, transgender individuals, and people reentering society from prior incarceration — it also provided a nice model for community engagement,” he said.
But Tsao criticized Emanuel for dragging his feet on getting the ball rolling. “We pitched CityKey to Emanuel’s team even before he took office in 2011. His administration was reluctant to take on this initiative until 2015 after New York launched its own program that turned out to be very successful,” he said.
‘He wasn’t a standard bearer’
Ask Emanuel about immigration and he’ll likely bring up his family’s journey to America.
“As both the son and grandson of immigrants, I know firsthand what our city is and what our city has represented to the millions of immigrants and refugees who have come to Chicago across our city’s history,” he said in a statement earlier this week.
What Emanuel probably won’t tell you about is how he’s changed his tone on the issue over the last 20 years.
As one of President Clinton’s closest advisers, Emanuel not only pushed for a “record number of deportations” in 1996 — he also wanted Clinton to “claim a number of industries free of illegal immigrants,” according to a memo exposed by the Sun-Times in 2014. At the time, Democrats and Republicans were competing over who could come up with the most punitive — “toughest” — immigration policies.
A decade later, as a congressman from Illinois’ 5th District and head of the House Democratic Caucus, Emanuel advised fellow Democrats to avoid talking about immigration.
“For the American people, and therefore all of us, [immigration has] emerged as the third rail of American politics, and anyone who doesn’t realize that isn’t with the American people,” Emanuel told The Washington Post in October 2007.
And as President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff, many Democrats on Capitol Hill accused Emanuel of derailing Obama’s promise to deliver a comprehensive immigration reform bill in his first year in office.
One of those pointing the finger at Emanuel was former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who told The New York Times in May 2010 Emanuel “sees comprehensive immigration reform as something the president does not need to prioritize.”
In an interview shortly after Emanuel said he would not run for a third term, Gutierrez said Emanuel “moved and shifted in the right direction” on immigration over the years.
“Today, immigrants and pro-immigrant policies are a cornerstone of the Democratic Party. You cannot say that was so 15 years ago,” he said. The mayor, Gutierrez added, “was not a standard bearer” on immigration for most of his political career, “but you can put him with the rest of the Democrats, can’t you?”
Emanuel’s critics argue his record shows he only went to the mat for immigrants after it became politically expedient.
“Rahm Emanuel has always used immigration as a political tool to get votes,” said Jorge Mujica, a longtime activist and labor organizer from Mexico who’s lived in Pilsen since 1988. “His support for immigrants depended on whether or not it would help him in his next election.”
In the end, Emanuel’s legacy on immigration proved most beneficial for “good” immigrants, said Tania Unzueta, legal and policy director for Mijente, a left-of-center Latino political group and a major player in Chicago’s immigrant rights movement.
”Most of the policies the mayor has enacted don’t address the most vulnerable immigrants,” she said. “There have been policies and programs that have been beneficial to the immigrant community — and the mayor has made sure we know what those things are — but people who are the most targeted are still left out.”
Carlos Ballesteros is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South and West sides.