Already an outspoken advocate of immigration reform, Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran on Monday endorsed legislation that would give Illinois communities more control over anti-illegal immigration efforts.
Curran criticized the federal Secure Communities program, which forces local agencies to share information with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, for deporting hardworking immigrants with established roots in the U.S. in addition to those with criminal convictions.
"We should be focusing on the major criminal offenders," he said. "We should be focusing on the terrorists."
Curran and members of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights discussed the issue with representatives of the Daily Herald editorial board.
Curran joins Kane County Sheriff Pat Perez and others in supporting the Smart Enforcement Act, a proposal that would allow counties to choose whether to participate in anti-illegal immigration programs, and require participating counties to record information about immigrants being held and the costs involved in those efforts.
The legislation also would push law-enforcement agencies to target only those illegal immigrants with criminal convictions.
The proposal, chiefly sponsored by Democratic state Rep. Dan Burke of Chicago, has been debated in the House but has not been called for a vote.
Once contacted by ICE and enrolled in the federal program, local communities are required to comply with the effort in which fingerprints and other information is shared with the agency following a suspect's arrest.
Lake, DuPage, Kane and McHenry counties are among the 26 Illinois counties that have joined the effort, said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois immigrant-rights group. The Cook County sheriff's office has resisted participating.
Without changes to the program, Curran said, his office will withdraw from it.
The federal government will never deport all of the nation's illegal immigrants, Curran said, and to go after people who are working and raising families is wrong. So is increasing deportations after years of letting the U.S. exist with open borders, he added.
ICE should "quit wasting time breaking up families, because it makes America a lesser country," Curran said.
Having Curran and other sheriffs support the legislation indicates ICE's program isn't working, Burke said in a telephone interview.
Curran's remarks reflect a relatively new stance for him.
Elected sheriff as a Democrat in 2006 and re-elected as a Republican in 2010, Curran initially had a fairly hard-line view. He was the first sheriff in Illinois to request jail officers be given formal deportation powers, and he backed a program that helps identify illegal immigrants arrested in the county.
By early 2010, however, Curran was endorsing national immigration reform and calling for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
An admittedly devout man, discussions with Catholic leaders prompted Curran to change his position, he said.
"I was on the wrong side of the issue," Curran said Monday. "To me, it didn't sit well as a matter of conscience."