Some local law enforcement agencies hold non-citizen prisoners on behalf of federal immigration officials. That gives immigration officials time to decide if the prisoner should be transferred to a detention facility and possibly deported. The agreement is designed to help crack down on hardened criminals, but there are concerns that it may go too far.
Angelina Lopez, 47, is a single mother living with three grown children in the Bloomington-Normal area. She illegally came to the United States with them from Mexico about 10 years ago. But her life in the U.S. is in influx because she is facing deportation.
Last October, Lopez was leaving a movie theatre in Bloomington where she worked as a custodian. Lopez was behind the wheel of her car. She said she noticed a patrol car and remained extra vigilant, to not give the police any reason to pull her over. But as soon as she pulled out of the parking lot, she said she was stopped and asked for her driver’s license, which she did not have.
“I think that they asked for my identification and my license, they asked if I was carrying drugs in the trunk,” Lopez said through a translator. “I said ‘no, you can check.’ It was a question that makes it seem like I’m a drug trafficker or like I sell drugs or something.”
Lopez was charged with several traffic violations, including driving without a license and operating an uninsured vehicle.
Once a person is brought to the county jail, their fingerprints are scanned and transmitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency can then determine if that person is eligible to be deported.
McLean County’s willingness to contact immigration officials about non-citizen arrests, and honor the ICE holds is not unusual. Just about the entire country is enrolled in a similar program through ICE called “Secure Communities.”
Secure Communities began as a pilot program in 2008, at the end of the George W. Bush Administration, and it has expanded during the Obama Administration.
ICE reports Secure Communities has helped remove more than 151,000 people, including more than 55,000 convicted of major violent offenses such as murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children.
ICE said it expects to roll out Secure Communities nationwide by the end of next year.
Illinois and Alabama are the only states that have not activated the program statewide.
After initially opting into it, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn last year said his state would no longer participate out of concerns over how the program was being operated. Other Illinois counties that have cooperated with ICE detainer requests, like Cook and Champaign, have also taken a step back after voicing similar concerns.
Last December, the CU-Immigration Forum held a public meeting at the Champaign Public Library to discuss Champaign County’s implementation of Secure Communities. The immigration program drew up a lot of concern and interest, based on the more than 125 people who showed up to the forum.
“In its one year implementation in Champaign County, it has been plagued by problems,” Aaron Johnson-Ortiz, a member of the CU-Immigration Forum, told a crowd.
According to analysis of non-citizen arrests held on ICE holds from Oct. 5, 2010 to Aug. 15, 2012 from data provided by the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office:
- 45 of the 67 arrest records in Champaign County were between March 2011 and March 2012
- 43 of those arrested identified as Hispanic
- 35 were released to ICE
- 10 of the arrests made between March 2011 and March 2012 were for traffic violations, including driving on a suspended license, driving an uninsured vehicle, driving an unregistered vehicle, driving under suspicion (DUS) and driving with improper registration.
- Nine of the 10 traffic violation arrests made were of people identified as Hispanic. One identified as white, non-Hispanic
- Charges were dropped against 11 of the 45 arrested between March 2011 and March 2012
Johnson-Ortiz listed several concerns he and others shared about Secure Communities, including separating families, using up jail space and tax dollars to house ICE detainees, and encouraging racial profiling.
“Champaign can stop a hold. This can happen tomorrow morning if Sheriff Walsh wants to. All that’s required is political will,” he added. “We can stop this right now.”
Three months after the forum, that is exactly what Champaign County did.
Sheriff Dan Walsh told federal officials the county would no longer honor detainer requests by immigration officials to hold inmates under the ‘Secure Communities’ program. He said inmates would only be turned over by warrant or court order.
Walsh declined to be interviewed for this story.
Even though Champaign County is no longer cooperating with the detainer requests, it is one of 26 Illinois counties currently enrolled in the program.
From 2009 through the start of this year, the Department of Homeland Security reported that about 3,000 people were arrested in these counties, and taken into ICE custody. Of those arrests, 27 percent committed felonies or misdemeanors and 26 percent of those crimes punishable by less than one year in prison.
The remaining half broke immigration law by violating the terms of their visa, entering the United States without inspection, or refusing to leave the U.S. after being ordered to do so.
These people may have criminal convictions, but none confirmed by ICE.
McLean County, where Angelina Lopez was arrested, is not enrolled as a Secure Community. She questions the true motivation behind her arrest.
"My message for all those who have the same problem as I do - of not having a sheet of paper that makes all the difference - is to stay out of trouble,” Lopez said. “I congratulate those who have that paper because they don’t make criminals out of them like they do of us.”
McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery said his office is responsible for about 30 percent of the arrests of non-citizens in McLean County. The rest have been carried out by other law enforcement agencies, like the police departments in Bloomington and Normal.
“It’s not as if we’re going out and making traffic stops solely for the purpose of checking the driver’s papers,” Emery said. “We don’t engage in those types of practices. When we get them at the county jail, it’s because they have violated state law, and we treat all cases the same.”
From the beginning of July 2011 through the start of this September, there have been roughly 180 arrests in McLean County in which people were held in the local jail on behalf of ICE.
They were held for immigration violations, misdemeanors, felonies, DUI’s or less severe crimes, like traffic violations.
Nearly 40 percent of those arrested, like Lopez, only had traffic violations on their record at the time of their arrest. Almost one in five had fewer than four traffic counts, according to an analysis of arrest data provided by the McLean County Sheriff’s Office.
As a courtesy, the McLean County sheriff’s office contacts ICE about non-citizen arrests.
The jail can only hold someone for up to 48 hours on behalf of ICE, not including weekends and holidays.
ICE can then determine if that person is eligible for deportation based on the severity of their crimes, criminal history, and other repeated violations of immigration law.
It is a process ICE Director John Morton said makes communities safer.
“In very large jurisdictions in the United States, the rate of recidivism for criminal offenders can be as high as 50 percent or more,” Morton said during a Congressional hearing this summer. “When ICE can come in and remove offenders from a given community, so that they can’t re-offend. Well, guess what? We take that recidivism rate to zero.”
Lopez is less likely to be deported than someone with felonies and misdemeanors on their record, but more likely to be removed from the country than someone with only a couple of traffic offenses.
Since 2004, she has been pulled over six times for a total of 17 traffic violations.
After being arrested last fall, she said she was held in the McLean County jail for a couple of days before being transferred to the Jefferson County Justice Center in Mt. Vernon, one of the detention facilities that contracts with ICE. Lopez said she was transported there in a van with about 20 other people, who were handcuffed and shackled at the waist.
“Along the way, they were smoking. They were driving excessively fast. They turned the radio volume up very high,” she said. “Someone needed to use the restroom…They gave him a bag for him to do it in front of everybody…They didn’t free his hands. They didn’t remove any cuffs at all. He had to do his necessities with handcuffs still on him.”
Lopez said she stayed at the Mt. Vernon jail for about three weeks before being transferred to another holding facility in Chicago for a day.
From there, she was released, and ended up getting a ride back to Bloomington from a stranger she met in Chicago. After three weeks following her initial arrest, she was reunited with her children.
“It was something that I didn’t ever imagine,” she said. “I thought there would be time to go back to my daughters. So many thoughts run through one’s mind because I didn’t imagine it would be this way - that I wouldn’t be able to see them. And when I saw them finally, it was something really beautiful.”
Lopez has an immigration hearing in the spring where she will likely find out if she will be deported.
Bloomington-Normal immigration activist Sonny Garcia said he has heard of other cases where people have been separated from their families for an extended period after being arrested for traffic offenses. Garcia said holding non-citizens at the request of immigration officials can help make communities safer, but Garcia said Sheriff Emery’s department needs to use more discretion when contacting ICE.
“We have no issue with him detaining hardened criminals or people that have felonies,” Garcia said. “The only issue we have is when he’s dealing with people, like Angelina, who are here working; who’ve got families that have lived here for years and years and are not a threat to our community.”
Sheriff Emery took office in 2006, and last year, changed a policy that had been on the books during his predecessor’s time in office. It allowed correctional officers to alert ICE about people suspected of being in this country illegally.
“We decided that it was discriminatory because my suspicions could be different from your suspicions,” Emery said. “So to make it a non-discriminatory policy, we changed it to all non-U.S born citizens the staff will contact ICE for identification and verification.
But that change does not address Garcia’s concerns.
Emery said it would not be fair for him to only report people who commit more serious crimes, like felonies and misdemeanors, while not alerting immigration officials about people who commit minor traffic offenses.
“I’m not going to turn my head, and close my eyes, or stick my head in the sand on offenses that were committed,” Emery said. “How would you feel if this group of individuals we’re letting slide by not enforcing the law, but then you run a stop sign and we issue you a ticket? That’s what selective enforcement is all about, and we don’t participate in that.”
Illinois State Rep. Toni Berrios (D-Chicago) worries too many people are being detained in communities that have this agreement with ICE. She said that is creating distrust between immigrant communities and the police.
Berrios sponsored legislation to put a halt to Secure Communities in Illinois so that it can be further studied. She said she does not believe the practice makes communities any safer.
“How many murders did we have here in Chicago just this weekend?” Berrios said. “Those are the criminals that we need to be going after, not individuals who are here trying to make a better life for their family and while driving on their way to work, making that right-hand turn on a red light.”
In Lake County, which is a Secure Community, Sheriff Mark Curran said the program creates unnecessary fear in the people who are living in the United States illegally, and it does not address a much larger issue – comprehensive immigration reform.
“Whether you’re involved in Secure Communities or not, there is no difference. There is no distinguishing. I cannot emphasize that any more,” Curran said. “We do not see any difference in deportations from when we participated in Secure Communities to prior to when we did.”
Curran continues to honor ICE holds, and he said he has no plans to stop.
"You know, out on the street, these people see their relatives being deported or their friends being deported,” he said. “They seem to think that Secure Communities has become the bad guy. Well, it’s not. It’s an immigration system that’s broken.”
Meanwhile, with ICE’s plans to activate Secure Communities nationwide by the end of next year, there are questions about the rights of states that choose not to enforce the policy.
In addition to Illinois, the governors of New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut have stated their opposition to Secure Communities.
Muzaffar Chishti, who is the director of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute’s Office at New York University, said he does not believe challenging the legality of the program would hold up in court. However, he said voices of opposition can still have some reach.
“You know, these are all powerful governors,” Chishti said. “These are all important Democratic states with important views that will be heard by the federal government is that they will use their power to make sure that the federal government establishes proprieties that only high yielding criminals should be the target of this program.”
ICE director John Morton said his agency has made strides to improve Secure Communities by encouraging more discretion about traffic arrests, and setting up a 24-hour hotline for people who believe they were wrongfully detained or held too long.
“We have a limited number of detention beds, and so the question is do we focus our resources on someone who just came across the border two years ago, as opposed to someone who came across 10 years ago, now has two United States citizen children,” Morton said. “If I have to pick between putting a criminal in detention or somebody who’s been here for a very long time, I’m going to pick the criminal every time,” Morton said.
When asked if ICE plans to sue states that do not comply with Secure Communities by next year, a spokeswoman said the agency has not sought to require compliance into the program through legal proceedings. Though she said ignoring agency requests could lead to public safety risks.
<em>(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)</em>