Senators ask Napolitano, Holder to penalize Chicagoland county for defying immigration officials

Michael Volpe Contributor
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The death of a Chicago man killed by a drunk driver who was in the United States illegally has become an unlikely catalyst in the national policy debate over immigration. Eight Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder on January 30, asking them to cut off some federal funding currently sent to Cook County, Illinois.

That funding, disbursed through a federal grant program called the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, pays localities for costs incurred in processing criminal aliens when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wants them detained before they can post bail.

Cook County received $2.29 million last year, $3.4 million in 2010 and $4.4 million in 2011.

Yet a Cook County ordinance forbids police from cooperating with those requests, called “detainers,” from ICE officials.

“It is ironic and frustrating that the Administration has filed suit against several states for passing laws that aim to protect their citizens and help enforce immigration law while essentially turning a blind eye to jurisdictions that actively promote safe harbor policies,” the senators wrote to Napolitano and Holder.

“If the Administration truly believes immigration law is only to be enforced by the Federal government, as it has argued before several courts, it should adhere to that position and take action against jurisdictions that actively thwart effective Federal enforcement of the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

On January 4, ICE Director John Morton sent Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle his own written warning that his ordinance could cause significant conflicts with the federal government. The county, he said, had ignored all 268 ICE requests to detain criminal aliens instead of setting their bail.

“In addition to undermining local public safety, the Ordinance may also violate federal law,” Morton wrote, adding that it “also inhibits ICE’s ability to validate Cook County’s annual request for State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) funding.”

(RELATED: Read the senators’ letter to Napolitano and Holder and ICE’s letter to Cook County, Illinois)

The case that snapped the federal government to attention involved Denny McCann, killed in 2011 by a criminal alien named Saul Chavez,  who was driving drunk. When Chavez was arrested for the same offense in 2008, he told a police officer that he was in the country illegally.

“I live in Chicago on Kedzie [Street],” Chavez said, according to a police report. “I don’t have a driver’s license because I don’t have papers.”

Tragically, no one told federal immigration authorities in 2008. Cook County, a “sanctuary” county, prohibits ICE agents from entering its jail.

Instead of being deported in 2008, Chavez was still in Chicago on June 8, 2011. That’s when he plowed into McCann, who was attempting to cross the street. Chavez dragged him about two hundred feet in his attempt to flee.

Chavez was apprehended at the scene and had a blood-alcohol content of 0.29 percent — nearly four times the legal limit.

He posted bail and fled the jurisdiction.

The Cook County ordinance prohibiting local law enforcement from cooperating with ICE was enacted between McCann’s homicide and Chavez’s first court date. It made it impossible for ICE to intercept him.

McCann’s brother Brian told The Daily Caller that he first learned Chavez was out of jail when he heard a voicemail message from the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. “It was cold, heartless, and unsympathetic,” he recalled.

The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office, he said, had already notified the McCann family that an ICE detainer was placed on Chavez. They were led to believe that Denny McCann’s killer would not be permitted to walk out of the jail.

Chavez was an illegal immigrant with a DUI already on his record, and he maintained a residence in Mexico. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this guy was a flight risk,” Brian McCann said.

Since November, he has been working with members of the Cook County Board to help craft an amendment to the ordinance that all but guaranteed the release of the man who killed his brother Denny.

“Denny never liked politics very much because he always thought that most politicians were out for themselves,” he told TheDC. After four months dealing with the Cook County government, he said, he can see where his brother was coming from.

When news first broke of Chavez’s flight from justice in December, local media had a field day. Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass dubbed the Commissioners who voted for the ordinance the “Chavez Eleven.” Quickly, Republican Commissioner Tim Schneider crafted an amendment that would require — not prohibit — cooperation with ICE detainers for most violent crimes. Schneider’s amendment would also allow ICE officials back into the jail facility.

But months later, no change is in sight.

“Most politicians are in it for themselves, and I don’t think anyone on that board thinks they can gain by having this amendment pass,” said a blunt McCann.

On January 19 the amendment was finally introduced in the first session of the year. It was co-sponsored by all four Republicans on the board and Democrat John Daley.

Republican Liz Gorman even tried to leapfrog the committee process that day, and move the legislation to a final vote immediately. “It shouldn’t go to committee, because we’re letting felons out on the street and we need to protect the public safety,” Gorman said.

But Republicans are far outnumbered by Democrats on the Cook County Board. The amendment was sent to the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee. After a number of postponements, the committee held an open hearing in February. A scheduled vote, however, was canceled.

McCann was not impressed with the hearing. “Everyone just beat up on ICE,” he recalled. “ICE got blamed for everything.”

The committee’s chairman, Larry Suffredin, is now questioning the constitutionality of ICE detainers, claiming they aren’t legitimate legal warrants to be obeyed. Until that issue is resolved, Suffredin said, the amendment is on hold indefinitely.

In the meantime, McCann warned, more dangerous criminal aliens will be released into Chicagoland.

Juan Benitez is one such individual. Benitez was arrested for DUI and driving without a license in November 2008. On August 29, 2009 he missed a scheduled court hearing, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. But Benitez wasn’t heard from again until December 19, 2011, when police apprehended him on another DUI charge.

That same day, ICE placed a detainer on Benitez. But it was ignored. Last month Circuit Court Judge Timothy Chambers set Benitez’s bond at $5,000. He’s out of jail, pending a court hearing scheduled for March 7.

Whether or not the federal government’s financial threats persuade Cook County to change its attitude toward working with U.S. immigration authorities, McCann told TheDC he hopes his brother’s death will lead to a substantial national debate about criminal aliens.

And for him, that starts with seeing the county law changed.

“As a family, we thought the best way to honor my brother’s memory was to help make sure that legislation gets passed that changes policy so this never happens again,” McCann said.

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Read the senators’ letter to Napolitano and Holder

Read ICE’s letter to the Cook County Board president: