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Illinois sheriffs: Violent felons facing deportation released into communities

Sheriff Mike Downey of Kankakee County said the Illinois Sheriffs’ Association was not given a reason for a recent policy switch, which Downey said is akin to giving the ex-inmates a “head start to evade federal law.”

Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey
Kankakee County Sheriff Mike Downey
Tyler LaRiviere /Sun-Times

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois Sheriffs’ Association said Tuesday that some violent felons who had faced deportation are instead being released into local communities after their prison terms end as a result of a policy change by Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration.

Sheriffs Mike Downey of Kankakee County and Tony Childress of Livingston County, representing the statewide law enforcement group, told reporters at the state Capitol that they were not given a reason for the policy switch, which Downey said is akin to giving the ex-inmates a “head start to evade federal law.”

“It’s alarming to think that because of a change in policy that suddenly these types of individuals might be walking the streets and we might not even be aware of it,” said Sen. Jason Barickman of Bloomington, one of several GOP lawmakers to join the sheriffs. “We’re here to first of all call on the administration to reverse this reckless policy and ensure the public that they’re safe.”

But an immigration expert said the practice violates the state Trust Act, the 2017 law that limits local law enforcement agencies’ cooperation with federal immigration officials.

The sheriffs’ concerns came just days after the Trump administration announced the unusual step of dispatching Customs and Border Patrol Agents to interior locales such as Chicago and other “sanctuary cities” which have set up impediments to customs enforcement.

Downey said Corrections officials announced late last month that they were canceling a process under which criminals living in the country illegally were transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center. That’s where, since October 2016, Kankakee County sheriff’s deputies picked them up and detained them under contract with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh called the policy switch a “pause” in Corrections’ interactions with ICE while Pritzker’s staff reviews it and other procedures.

“The governor has made it abundantly clear that Illinois will be a firewall against the president’s attacks on immigrant communities,” Abudayyeh said.

Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, said the Trust Act, signed in August 2017 by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, prohibits the cooperation of IDOC and Kankakee County with ICE, even if ICE holds a warrant or so-called federal immigration detainer on the person.

“IDOC would not be able to hold anyone beyond the end of that person’s criminal sentence even if that person was subject to an ICE detainer or warrant,” Tsao said. “In no event would Trust allow any sheriff or local police department to take custody of anyone based solely on an ICE detainer or warrant.”

The sheriffs said they don’t have a number of how many inmates who would have faced deportation have been released. Of 223 immigrants transferred from Pontiac to ICE detention in 2019, Downey said 11 were convicted of murder or attempted murder, more than four dozen of predatory criminal sexual assault or abuse, including crimes involving children, and 33 were convicted of a crime involving a weapon.

The Trust Act does allow local police to communicate with immigration agents and hold someone for federal authorities if there’s a valid criminal warrant.

Convictions should count in this case, said Sen. Jil Tracy, a Quincy Republican.

“These are convicted felons,” Tracy said. “They’ve served their sentences. However, will they register with a parole officer?”

As for sex offenders, Childress added, “Individuals with no legal status in this country do not register on the Illinois Sex Offender Registry. And if they flee Illinois, they don’t register themselves anywhere else, either.”

ICE is allowed to pick up immigrants released from prison, Tsao said, although Corrections officials can’t take them to the Pontiac prison for pickup. ICE spokeswoman Nicole Alberico confirmed that “ICE officers now have to go into the community find convicted criminals released from IDOC instead of a peaceful transfer within the jails.”