Chicagoland: Cook County jail bans federal immigration officers

Michael Volpe Contributor
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An official with Immigration and Customs Enforcement told The Daily Caller that ICE agents are no longer allowed in Cook County jail, and haven’t been permitted to enter the premises since the beginning of last summer. That shocking revelation comes as local and national officials deal with the aftermath of a vehicular homicide case involving a criminal alien released instead of being turned over to federal authorities for deportation.

Saul Chavez, an illegal alien who already has a drunk driving conviction, has fled to avoid facing that felony charge.

A controversial Cook County ordinance, passed in September 2011, has precluded Cook County from complying with ICE detainers, procedures that allow the federal agency to pick up municipal inmates who would otherwise be released.

ICE placed a detainer on Chavez, but Cook County ignored it because of the new law.

According to an ICE official who spoke to TheDC on condition of anonymity, ICE agents are also no longer allowed inside Cook County jail.

“We can’t interview suspects to determine if they should be flagged by ICE,” he official said, also pointing out that the jail had already been gradually eroding ICE agents’ privileges before excluding them from the premises altogether.

Frank Bilecki, a spokesperson for Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, confirmed that ICE agents no longer have access to the jail, claiming in an email that the new ordinance requires it.

“The ordinance that was passed on September 7 … requires the Sheriff’s Office to ‘Decline ICE detainer requests unless there is a written agreement with the federal government by which all costs … shall be reimbursed,’” he wrote. “It also stated that, ‘ICE agents shall not be given access to individuals or allowed to use County facilities for investigative interviews or other purposes.’”

The ICE official, however, insisted that access was denied long before the ordinance was passed, saying that agents “weren’t allowed into the premises before the ordinance passed, … back in the beginning of summer [2011].”

The finger-pointing has reached a fever pitch because of the Chavez case.

Police report that on June 8, 2011, Saul Chavez got into his 2002 Dodge Neon drunk and hit sixty-six year-old Denny McCann, who was attempting to cross the street, dragging him about two hundred feet with his car as he attempted to escape.

McCann died soon thereafter. Chavez, an illegal immigrant with a previous drunk-driving conviction, was arrested on the scene.

ICE immediately put a detainer on Chavez following his arrest. But because Cook County ignored it, Chavez was allowed to post bond on November 20 and walk out of the jail.

Chavez missed a December court appearance, his first scheduled hearing since he posted bond. He hasn’t been seen since.

A spokesperson for Jesus Garcia, the Democratic Cook County Commissioner, blamed the federal government, telling TheDC that “ICE had from June to November to issue a criminal warrant.” Garcia was the chief sponsor of the ordinance that precluded the county from holding Chavez long enough for ICE to pick him up.

ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen confirmed that her agency “placed an immigration detainer on Saul Chavez at the Cook County Jail on June 10, 2011,” and said that the detainer “was still active at the time he bonded out of Cook County custody.”

Christensen also said that Chavez had never appeared on ICE’s radar before.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle tossed the Chavez hot-potato to Cook County’s bond court. Preckwinkle spokesperson Liane Jackson told TheDC that Chavez should have been subject to a higher cash bond.

“If a convicted felon who is charged with another violent offense is released back on the street because his bond wasn’t sufficient, that’s a public safety problem and not an immigration issue,” Jackson said. “The [board] president’s goal is to make sure bond amounts fit the offense, so that tragedies like this can be prevented, whether the offender is an [illegal] immigrant or not.”

Jackson did, however, suggest that Preckwinkle would support revising the county’s controversial immigration law. “We are not against reviewing the ICE ordinance, and we are open to a dialogue on the issue,” she said.

Tim Schneider, a Republican from the northwest Chicago suburbs, has been the ordinance’s most vocal opponent. His office said he is currently crafting a new ordinance that would require the county jail to respect ICE detainers placed on suspects charged with homicide and other serious crimes. Schneider hopes to have an ordinance ready for the Cook County Board’s meeting on Wednesday.

The case of Saul Chavez is the latest in a series of similar lapses for which Cook county has earned widespread criticism. The Chicago Sun-Times featured the story of Eduardo Sanchez, an illegal alien who allegedly beat up a police officer during a traffic stop. Three other criminal aliens were also released after allegedly assaulting an officer in the Chicago suburb of Hanover Park.

Meanwhile, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has backed away from the detainer ordinance, saying it would prefer a solution like the one in San Francisco County, where the sheriff has the discretion to comply with — or ignore — ICE detainers on a case-by-case basis.

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