Scapegoating Doesn't Make You Blameless

02/01/2012 08:12 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

A tragedy occurred this past June when Saul Chavez, an undocumented person with a history of drunk driving, was apprehended and released after posting bail with Cook County, Illinois. Mr. Chavez, drunk again, went out driving and killed Mr. William "Denny" McCann as Mr. McCann was crossing a street. This was a tragic loss and we all offer our deepest condolences to the family of Mr. McCann. After posting bail, Chavez failed to appear at subsequent court hearings and may have fled the country. In the aftermath, a finger pointing exchange has taken place, blaming Cook County's immigrant detainer policy.

Normally, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can place a hold, or detainer, on individuals in the custody of law enforcement who are suspected to be in the country without proper documents. The detainer is a request that a law enforcement agency notify ICE before releasing that person, so that ICE may take over custody. However, the detainer requests often leave suspected undocumented immigrants in local jails for days or even weeks, awaiting a pick up from ICE and the costs to local jurisdictions are not reimbursed by the federal government.

The Cook County policy stated that they decline to honor detainers unless there's a written agreement with ICE that the federal government picks up the costs or unless ICE has a criminal warrant for that person. The policy was adopted by the18-member Board of Commissioners when they had to consider the fiscal implications of holding someone in jail, at a cost of $143 per person per day, despite the fact that ICE sometimes picked the person up or sometimes they didn't. The yearly cost to Cook County taxpayers of detaining these immigrants is in the millions of dollars, and they received no reimbursement from the federal government. Like many other jurisdictions across the country, the Board had to look at cuts in programs and they were willing to hold people in their jails, but they felt that since the ICE detainer is an agency request and not a court-issued warrant, the federal government should pay for their request.

John Morton, Director of ICE, sent Toni Preckwinckle, Cook County Board President, a letter challenging the policy, implying it was the cause of the tragedy. In her response to Morton, President Preckwinckle pointed out that ICE had the opportunity to pick up Chavez during his previous time in jail or even in his most recent detention, but they never followed through on the detainer. She's right.

But let's get to the policy. The courts, jails, sheriffs, police, probation and parole departments have all had programs to divert people from jail and prisons or to do alternatives to detention for decades. Our justice system also has a longtime policy of affording bail to arrested individuals for crimes, including rape, assault and robbery. Adult jails and juvenile halls have been releasing prisoners on their own recognizance, to do work or study programs because so many of our jails and prisons are overcrowded. Convicted felons have been released from prisons and into parole or probation in both state and federal systems for the very same reason. Even governors pardon convicted felons. Do some of these people also go out and commit further crime, including murder? Sometimes they do. But are we going to stop these policies because on rare occasions these people go out and continue to victimize our fellow citizens? I doubt it.

The fact of the matter is that ICE's worst fear is that they lose the ability to hold people in county jails for free. If the Cook County policy were to spread to other jurisdictions across the country, many which are facing similar fiscal problems or even worse, ICE would lose the "free ride" it's been getting. By using programs like 287g and Secure Communities, ICE has driven immigration detainers to levels never envisioned, thus allowing the deportation numbers to reach sky high numbers, 400,000 this past year. But it also has shifted the cost burden of many of these detentions to local governments, with absolutely no chance of reimbursement.

But here's another point to consider. Every police jurisdiction across the country has real court warrants for the arrest and detention of suspects in their files that are not being served. Many of these are for serious felony crimes like murder, rape, assault and robbery. Most departments used to have fugitive squads but these were largely done away with ages ago because of lack of resources. Arrests occur then primarily when an officer in the street runs across the suspect and happens to run a computer check, discovering that there is an outstanding arrest warrant for the person. These wanted people are still out among us victimizing more of our fellow citizens and neighbors.

Every law enforcement agency has crime cases demanding follow-up investigations that they can't get to because there are not enough detectives or officers to carry them out. Many of these cases needing investigator follow up are for serious felonies including burglary and robbery that in some cases now get treated like a petty theft committed by a minor. Calls for service are now being taken over the telephone and the internet because it's cheaper than sending out a police officer or a deputy. Worse, in many, including car crashes, they don't get responded to because of budget cuts.

At a time when local elected leaders are making cuts to education, social programs, law enforcement, courts, prosecutors, jails and probation departments, why should they be shouldering the economic burden for the federal government's programs? We all want to see felons held accountable at every level. In the tragedy of Mr. McCann's death, it was not about Chavez' immigration status but that he was drinking and driving again. The death of Mr. McCann would still be a tragedy regardless of the status of the drunk driver. These ICE detainers have become a costly federal unfunded mandate. If there was plenty of money to go around, maybe Cook County could do more to fight the cuts in its budget and maybe even do more to get drunk drivers off the street, but Cook County does not print its own money.