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Committee eliminates exceptions to Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance

Mayor Lori Lightfoot had promised to prevent Chicago Police officers from working with immigration agents by eliminating loopholes that allowed police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities in certain circumstances.

Protesters march down Clark Street on Saturday, July 13, 2019 to protest anticipated raids by immigration officials.
A Chicago protest march for immigrant rights in 2019.
Sun-Times file

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to prevent Chicago police officers from working with immigration agents by eliminating “carve-outs” in the city’s Welcoming City ordinance that allowed police to cooperate with ICE in certain circumstances.

On Tuesday, the mayor will finally deliver on that promise — albeit 20 months late.

The City Council’s newly-created Committee on Immigrant and Refugee Rights, meeting for the first time, approved an even stronger version of the long-awaited reforms on Tuesday. The measure will head to the Council for final approval next week.

Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th) described the vote as symbolic because it took place on President Donald Trump’s last full day in office.

“We are sending a message that Trump’s assault on sanctuary cities has failed and rather than undoing our sanctuary city policies, we are strengthening them,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

The ordinance will provide relief to undocumented immigrants like Ozzie Garcia, a leader with Access Living, a disability rights organization. He said during a Tuesday morning online news conference that he’s always known any interaction with police could increase his risk for deportation, in particular because of troubles he had with the law when he was younger.

Garcia, now 40, said he’s turned his life around, but “in the eyes of the criminal justice and immigration system, this does not matter.”

Garcia said he was “thrilled” because the ordinance lowers his risk of deportation. But he and other immigration advocates called on Biden to provide a pathway to citizenship.

“People like me are the first ones to get thrown under the bus when immigration proposals are debated on the federal level,” Garcia said.

Before the Council voted in November to approve Lightfoot’s $12.8 billion budget, the mayor had tried to use eliminating the so-called “carve-outs” to win votes from the 13-member Hispanic Caucus. Immigrants rights advocates denounced that offer, and Lightfoot introduced a standalone ordinance.

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 would eliminate those exceptions.

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

• Stopping, arresting, detaining or continuing 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.

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

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

Ramirez-Rosa said two new provisions also have been added.

The most important of those changes would ensure undocumented Chicagoans who are crime victims and then assist Chicago police in their investigation will, within 90 days, receive certification of the paperwork they need to seek a Green Card through a federal program known as ‘U-Visa.’

“The second provision is, we’ve gone through the city code and we’re removing twelve instances of the word ‘citizen’ to just make it clear that portion of the code applies to every Chicagoan, regardless of their immigration status.”

During the morning news conference, Ald. Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez (33rd) said the ordinance is an important legal step forward in police reform, citing a requirement that Chicago police report every 3 months any interactions the department has had with federal immigration agents. That will show if the ordinance is being followed.

Lopez, one of the mayor’s most outspoken City Council critics, remains dead-set against eliminating the carve-outs, fearing it would tie the hands of Chicago police in cracking down on the gang-bangers and drug dealers terrorizing his community.

“There are thousands of good, undocumented people living in our neighborhoods trying to make our city better that should be welcomed and protected. However, our city should not be a sanctuary for a small group of individuals that are here without documentation and pose a serious threat to everyone’s safety,” Lopez wrote in a text message to the Sun-Times.

“The neighborhoods that I represent like Back of the Yards and Brighton Park are filled with immigrant families that want to feel safe — both from deportation, but also from being terrorized in their adoptive country.”

Lightfoot has branded Lopez’s opposition “racist” and “xeonophobic.” Ramirez-Rosa called it “misguided.”

“There are two major studies … of sanctuary city policies. And they find that sanctuary cities are safer because no one is afraid to call 911. And residents of a city feel as if they are welcome and integrated and part of the fabric of our society,” Ramirez-Rosa said.

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.

Also on Tuesday, the committee turned the page from the terrorizing of immigrants that characterized the Trump era by approving a resolution urging incoming President Joe Biden to “immediately enact” immigration reform. That’s already front-and-center on Biden’s ambitious agenda.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.