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Cook County Votes To Free Immigrant Inmates Wanted By Feds

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When it comes to federal immigration compliance, Illinois lawmakers have been bold in their rejection of some Obama administration policies in recent months. On Wednesday, the Cook County Board of Commissioners decided to tell the feds that if they want suspected illegal immigrants to stay in prison longer, they'll have to pay for the detention.

Before Wednesday, a federal mandate required the Cook County Jail to hold inmates suspected of immigration violations for two days longer, even in misdemeanor cases such as traffic violations and minor drug arrests. The criminal cases are then turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which decides whether or not to deport the immigrants.

The process is costly, according to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who said the feds should cough up $142.80 per inmate, per day if they want the jail to hold them longer than needed. The ordinance gives jail officials the right to release inmates without holding them for two days extra, as long as they post bond, have charges against them dropped or are found not guilty.

The ordinance, a version of which was originally drafted by County Board Commissioner Jesús García earlier in the summer, was created in response to a federal ruling in Indiana, where a judge determined that ICE detainers are not mandatory, and counties can opt out at their will.

"It's important to recognize that this is about improving public safety, it's about serving our taxpayers better and it's about keeping families together," Preckwinkle said, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Supporters of the measure originally said that the ordinance applies to low-level offenders only, and that it would not allow violent criminals to go free. It turns out to be much more complicated than that, as the Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday:

Cook County Commissioner Joan Murphy Thursday went as far as to say she “misspoke” when she earlier declared that only those locked up on misdemeanors would be impacted.

“It’s a misdemeanor — it’s nothing, this is the people that we’re talking about that are going to be released, not anyone that has a felony,” Murphy said during Wednesday’s meeting.

“That’s not what I meant,” Murphy said Thursday. “The point is that the majority are being held for misdemeanors.”

The Sun-Times pointed to the case of Eduardo E. Sanchez, a man who was charged with a felony after allegedly punching an arresting officer after blowing a red light earlier this week. Despite the felony charge, Sanchez was able to post bond and walk out of jail thanks to the new ordinance.

“The [ordinance] affects anyone charged with a misdemeanor or felony crime who posts their bond or has their case adjudicated," Steve Patterson, a spokesman for sheriff Tom Dart, told the Sun-Times. "If they also have an immigration detainer, normally that person would be turned over to immigration authorities within 48 hours. Instead, they will freely leave the jail.”

Garcia told WBEZ the ICE detainers allow for the deportations of people who pose little or no risk to public safety, and said the judicial system would keep the bad guys in jail. The theory is, if a crime is bad enough, the criminal's bond will be high enough or a judge will require a felon to stay in prison. Supporters say those charged with offenses such as murder or rape would be held in a state prison and not be impacted by the ordinance, according to the Sun-Times.

According to WBEZ, complying with ICE detainers costs the Cook County Sheriff's office $250,000 per year. Despite the cost, opponents of the ordinance say it puts the public at risk, and ICE agreed.

"What do we do, disregard the rule of law? These people should be deported," Commissioner Timothy Schneider told the Chicago Tribune. ICE issued a statement saying that "jurisdictions that ignore detainers bear the risk of possible public safety risks."

“As far as I know, Cook County would be the first local jurisdiction in the country to quit complying with ICE detainers,” Chris Newman, legal director of the Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told WBEZ.

The new ordinance says the county will not comply with ICE detainers “unless there is a written agreement with the federal government by which all costs incurred” through the process are reimbursed by the federal government.

This is not the first time Illinois has stood out when it comes to opposing federal immigration policy.

In the spring, Gov. Pat Quinn announced that he would not comply with Secure Communities, an immigration enforcement program that shares fingerprints with the FBI and Homeland Security to detect illegal immigrants. Quinn used some of the same points as Preckwinkle and Garcia to defend his stance, saying the program often leads to the deportation of nonviolent offenders, and that less than 20 percent of Illinois residents deported through the program have been convicted of a serious crime.

Homeland Security fired back, however, saying the state's participation in the program was mandatory and that they would require local police departments to share the fingerprints.

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