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Lightfoot follows through on promise to eliminate exceptions to Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance

The mayor’s proposal would end the Chicago Police Department’s limited cooperation with federal immigration enforcement.

Ald. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th)
Ald. Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th)
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is finally delivering on her campaign promise to eliminate exceptions in Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance that let Chicago police officers work with immigration agents.

During the frenzied negotiations that preceded the City Council’s 29-to-21 vote on her $12.8 billion budget, Lightfoot tried to use eliminating the so-called “carve-outs” as a political sweetener to win votes from the 13-member Hispanic Caucus.

When immigrants rights advocates denounced the mayor’s offer as a political ploy, Lightfoot agreed to introduce a standalone ordinance in December.

The mayor plans to do just that at the City Council meeting Wednesday.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th), who is listed as a co-sponsor of the mayor’s ordinance, called it a “great day for the immigrant- and refugee-rights community” and the culmination of a five-year battle.

“Assuming this passes, we will be able to definitively tell the hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens who are family members of undocumented immigrants, ‘Do not fear to call 911 because of your immigration status,’” the alderman said.

“We will finally be able to tell them authoritatively and definitively that they should have no fear of their local police as it relates to federal immigration law enforcement because local police and ICE cannot cooperate in any single case.”

Chicago police officers currently 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 are the subject of an outstanding criminal warrant.

The mayor’s ordinance, already posted on the city clerk’s website, would eliminate all of the exceptions.

Any “agent or agency” of the city would also be forbidden to:

• Stop, arrest, detain or continue to detain a person solely on the belief that the person is not present legally in the United State or has committed a civil immigration violation.

• Transfer any person into ICE custody for the sole purpose of civil immigration enforcement.

• Set up a traffic perimeter or provide on-site support to assist a civil immigration enforcement operation.

Advocates and community leaders were incensed by the mayor’s attempt to use eliminating the carve-outs as a “budget sweetener.”

“They felt that their work had been taken hostage and was being used to coerce votes for a property tax increase,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

“It’s a separate, stand-alone policy that has nothing to do with our revenue streams or our expenses. And so, there was a strong feeling that it needed to stand on its own.”

Chicago’s days as a “sanctuary city” where undocumented people can access city services and live without fear of police harassment date back 35 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 residents.

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 ICE 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 celebre for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

In response, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., united behind the 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.