Cook County Commissioner Tim Schneider of Bartlett hopes to amend the new ordinance that allows the county to release suspected illegal immigrants from jail without notifying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even if they are charged with a felony.
At the Jan. 18 board meeting, Schneider will propose an amendment that would require the county to notify ICE when detainees who committed forceable felonies or are on a terrorism watch list are released.
Schneider's still ironing out the exact wording, but his proposal already has the support of Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, spokesmen for both said last week.
Another supporter is Hanover Park Village President Rodney Craig, who blasted the law last fall after three suspected illegal immigrants accused of assaulting two of his village's police officers were released back into the community, rather than being detained and turned over to ICE.
Next week, Craig will introduce a resolution to the U.S. Council of Mayors seeking support of the ordinance amendment. Craig's also been in touch with a few Republican senators from outside Illinois who oppose the law and urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to get involved. So far, she has not, Schneider said.
"We have got to do something about this," Schneider said. "It's a public safety issue."
The law -- proposed by Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and endorsed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, and approved in September -- was hailed as a way to protect misuse of ICE detainers and save the county $15 million to $20 million in expenses for detainee housing.
Opponents of the controversial law say that number is way off -- they set the cost of complying with detainers at about $250,000 -- and doesn't take into account the $3.4 million in federal funds the county gets to house illegal immigrant detainees.
A letter from ICE Director John Morton to Preckwinkle Jan. 4, obtained by the Daily Herald Thursday, warned the law undermines public safety and disrupts the federal government's efforts to remove deportable criminal offenders from the country.
Morton asked Preckwinkle to amend the ordinance "to avoid any legal conflict with federal law and to restore sensible cooperation between Cook County and ICE."
Preckwinkle is open to the idea of amending the law, her press secretary said, but believes the root of the problem is bond reform. If the judges set higher bails for felony crimes, the suspects would stay in jail.
"One of our top priorities is to find a way to engage in bond reform, so people who are threats to public safety aren't released back on the streets before adjudication," said Preckwinkle's press secretary, Liane Jackson.
In a guest essay to the Daily Herald in October, Commissioner Garcia defended the law, saying it is wrong to presume someone is guilty before they've had their day in court.
"By refusing to detain people who are entitled to their freedom, based merely on a request from ICE, we are upholding our system of justice -- the very system that protects us from criminal misconduct," Garcia wrote.
The law is facing renewed criticism because of the case of Saul Chavez, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who was charged with the drunken driving death of William McCann in Chicago last summer.
Police said Chavez was driving drunk down Kedzie Avenue when he struck McCann, ran him over, and dragged him more than 200 feet. Chavez was charged with aggravated driving under the influence, a felony.
Two days later, suspecting Chavez was an illegal immigrant, ICE filed an immigration detainer. However, Chavez -- who had a prior DUI conviction -- posted 10 percent of the $250,000 bail set for him by Cook County Judge Ramon Ocasio III and disappeared. Because of the new county law, ICE was never notified of Chavez's release, and authorities now believe he fled to his native Mexico, ABC 7 Chicago reported.
Schneider says the Chavez case is "the poster child" for the problem with this new law.
"It's only a matter of time ... until someone else is let out and injures someone," said Schneider, who opposed the law from the get-go. "We can't let this go on and have more Saul Chavezes let out of jail."
An ICE official, who asked that his name not be used, said since the law went into effect, the agency has filed more than 280 detainers on people in Cook County jail who were considered "removable criminal aliens" and hasn't been notified about any of them being released. As a result, ICE has been able to apprehend only 16 of them.
"If they had honored the detainers, we would have taken 280 people into custody," said the ICE official, adding that the agency could have removed countless more if the county didn't prohibit it from going into the jail and interviewing other potential detainees.
"It is absolutely horrible public policy and creates a threat to the community," the ICE official added. "They've made it very close to impossible to effectively identify and remove illegal aliens."
Schneider fears the county is opening itself up to lawsuits if people with ICE detainers are released by the county and go out and harm someone else.
"There'd be a number of lawyers who would want to take that case and sue Cook County," Schneider said. "We're putting taxpayers' money in jeopardy and taxpayers in jeopardy."
Craig says he's heard nothing but support for the amendment.
"The only concern I hear is, 'Is someone with a broken taillight going to be arrested and deported?' That's not what this is about," he said. "Those who are here and are trying to do the right thing, we need to help them become citizens and become successful. But then we have these others who are clearly causing a problem."