CHICAGO -- The release of more than 40 suspected illegal immigrants jailed in Cook County on felonies has added fuel to a contentious debate over public safety and local authorities' defiance of a White House program that aims to pursue more criminal deportations.
The program depends on police and sheriff's deputies to hold suspected illegal immigrants who get arrested beyond the time when they would otherwise be released. But commissioners in the county around Chicago recently adopted a new law that orders the sheriff to ignore all federal requests to detain immigrants after they complete their sentences or post bail.
Other places, such as San Francisco, have taken similar measures, part of a backlash against the Obama administration, which many say is unfairly seeking to deport immigrants accused of traffic violations and other minor offenses. But Cook County's new ordinance is the first to forbid a sheriff from holding suspected felons as well as those accused of misdemeanors.
"It puts residents at risk, and it puts my police officers at risk," said Rod Craig, mayor of Hanover Park in suburban Chicago, who is livid about the release of three suspected illegal immigrants charged with assaulting two officers and trying to take one of their guns.
Detaining the immigrants is supposed to give federal agents time to pick up the suspects and begin the deportation process. But one after another, local governments have complained about that the Secure Communities program, which gives immigration agents access to fingerprints collected at jails. They say the practice costs too much money and treats immigrants unfairly, especially those accused of only small-time offenses such as shoplifting, traffic violations or drunken driving.
Some states have pulled out of the program. In Illinois, for instance, Gov. Pat Quinn declared the government would not cooperate. New York's governor also suspended participation. And in San Francisco, the sheriff refuses to honor detention requests from the Customs and Immigration Enforcement for illegal immigrants charged with misdemeanors.
In Cook County, which is overwhelmingly Democratic and has seen rapid growth in its Latino population, commissioners on both side of the issue captured the anger and fears that are being voiced far beyond the Chicago area.
"What we are doing is righting a wrong against people who are on the soil of Cook County under the protection of the U.S. Constitution," said Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a Democrat who supported the measure.
Why, asked Jesus Garcia, the commissioner who sponsored the ordinance, should immigrants be treated any differently than anyone else who has been arrested?
"By refusing to detain people who are entitled to their freedom, based merely on a request from (immigration agents) we are upholding our system of justice..." he said in a statement.
Another commissioner warned that the board was putting people in danger – and risking a firestorm of negative publicity if someone who is released commits a violent crime.
Less than a month after the board acted, more than 40 suspected illegal immigrants charged with or convicted of felonies have walked to freedom instead of into the arms of federal agents, according to the sheriff's department.
"This is our Willie Horton moment in Cook County," warned Commissioner Timothy Schneider, a Republican who voted against it. He was referring to a convicted killer who was released as part of a Massachusetts prison furlough program and then raped a woman. The case was used to devastating effect in 1988, when George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign revealed that his opponent, Michael Dukakis, supported the program when he was Massachusetts governor.
Schneider and others say that all the ordinance has done is squander an opportunity to keep dangerous felons off the streets. Immigration officials agree that it raises the risk that criminals known to be dangerous will be freed.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart has been relatively quiet. After it became clear that the board was going to go further than his staff recommended, Dart's representative would not say anything beyond pledging that the sheriff's department would enforce the ordinance, despite repeated attempts by county board members to get him to do so.
"When they wanted a more sweeping ordinance that would let everybody go free no matter what their criminal charge was, we just backed away from the conversation," Dart spokesman Steve Patterson said.
Judges can always order an illegal immigrant – or any other suspect – held on bond so high that the person cannot pay. So most of the 280 people who have been the subject of federal detention requests aren't going anywhere. But a few will inevitably find enough money to get out.
That possibility, as well as the fact that some of those who have been released have failed to show up in court, all help explain why immigrant-rights activists, sheriffs and others are waiting to see if the board's actions backfire.
"I think everybody is watching to see how it plays out politically," said Arturo Venegas Jr., a former police chief in Sacramento, Calif., and immigration consultant who until recently served on a federal panel that was reviewing government efforts to find illegal immigrants.
In California's Santa Clara County, officials were almost ready to adopt a similar ordinance when, only an hour before their meeting, they got word that Cook County had tried it first. They decided to wait.
Whether the Cook County ordinance triggers the adoption of similar laws remains to be seen.
Already, the Obama administration has taken steps to relax the controversial program. Just this month, it announced that agents had rounded up nearly 3,000 criminals for deportation, stressing that all of those captured had at least one criminal conviction and half had a felony conviction. Eighty-seven of those arrested were from Illinois.
Meanwhile, at least one other jurisdiction that tried a law similar to Cook County's has reversed course in the interest of public safety. New Mexico's San Miguel County once drastically limited the detainment requests it would accept. Now it honors every single one.