Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago. (Getty Images)

CHICAGO – During her campaign for mayor and already at the helm of the City of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot has promised to maintain Chicago as a welcoming city to immigrants, and has said that she will defend and protect immigrants with all means necessary from the ongoing attacks from the Trump Administration.

In 2013, during the Rahm Emanuel Administration, Chicago passed the Welcoming City Ordinance, created to promote Chicago as a friendly city for immigrants through the incorporation of protections for the undocumented. But this ordinance includes four exceptions.

This ordinance prohibits, in general terms, the Chicago Police from asking about a person’s immigration status and from cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents unless there is a court order. Under this norm, ICE’s administrative warrants are not considered valid for this type of collaboration if those are only linked to civil violations of immigration laws.

But immigrant rights advocates consider that the exceptions in the ordinance should be eliminated because they are negatively impacting the undocumented community in Chicago. They are hoping that Mayor Lightfoot fulfills her campaign promise of removing these exceptions. She has reiterated that she will. But this is a process that will take time.

In 2019, during her electoral campaign, Lightfoot told La Raza that “it is not enough to be a welcoming city, we have exceptions in the ordinance that we have to get rid of, but beyond that we also need to create an environment where we say that you [the immigrants] are welcomed here, you have the right to participate in all the good of the city.”

The Welcoming City Ordinance exceptions allowing the Chicago Police and other municipal agencies to collaborate with ICE apply when the subject of the investigation:

* has an outstanding criminal warrant;

* has been convicted of a felony in any court of competent jurisdiction;

* is a defendant in a criminal case in any court of competent jurisdiction were a judgment has not been entered and a felony charge is pending;

* or has been identified as a known  gang member in a law enforcement agency’s database or by his own admission.

So far, 31 Chicago aldermen and a coalition of community advocates have supported an amendment that would eliminate these exceptions. The amendment, sponsored by Ward 35 Alderman Carlos Ramírez Rosa, and Ward 22 Alderman Mike Rodríguez, was introduced on July 24, 2019.

According to Alderman Ramírez Rosa, the Welcoming City Ordinance contains language that still allows for Chicago Police to cooperate with federal immigration agents.

“We want to change that law to remove those exceptions to ensure that we have a clear and direct ordinance that says that in no case ICE can work with the City of Chicago to deport a resident in our city,” said Ramírez Rosa.

Reyna Wences, a community organizer of Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD), added, “the focus has always been to try to eliminate the collaboration between the police and immigration agents, and to eliminate exceptions such as having a felony conviction, or a felony charge and a pending order. We also want to avoid using the gang database.”

A Welcoming City: history and background

Prior to the Welcoming City Ordinance, the City of Chicago promulgated executive orders and ordinances that partially limited local agencies, police officers, and city employees from providing information to federal immigration authorities or collaborating with them.

On March 7, 1985, Mayor Harold Washington signed the Executive Order 85-1 that stated that “no agent or agency shall request information about or otherwise investigate or assist in the investigation of the citizenship or residency status of any person unless such inquiry or investigation is required by statute, ordinance, federal regulation or court decision.” It also indicated that “no agent or agency shall disseminate information regarding the citizenship or residency status of any person unless required to do so by legal process.” Executive Order 85-1 also stated that “no agent or agency shall condition the provision of City of Chicago benefits, opportunities or services on matters related to citizenship or residency status unless required to do so by statute, ordinance, federal regulation or court decision.”

A few years later, on April 25, 1989, Mayor Richard M. Daley signed Executive Order 89-6, which ratified the elements of Executive Order 85-1.In 2006, City Council made Executive Order 89-6 into law.

Beyond these ordinances’ language, these regulations must be truly and thoroughly respected.

Immigration Attorney Juan Soliz said that he had seen cases in which the rules are not being followed. “In some ways, when immigration authorities intervene, some [undocumented] people end up in immigration custody before they are even found guilty.”

When asked what influence a city ordinance has on a federal level on immigration matters, Soliz said that “immigration determines that they have superior authority over city laws, and for that reason, they don’t respect city ordinances, and that’s essentially because federal law is placed before a city law.”

For years, activists have strongly argued that these ordinance exceptions leave many gaps in city regulations allowing federal agents to get collaboration from local entities on immigration issues.

Lightfoot, during her campaign, pledged to eliminate those exceptions to the Welcoming City Ordinance. Although the Mayor has remained empathetic to the immigrant community, these exceptions have not yet been eliminated.

The reason they have not eliminated those exceptions, according to Lightfoot’s Office and several council members, is that there is currently litigation between the City of Chicago and the federal government. Therefore, they prefer not to interfere and wait.

Meanwhile, Lightfoot’s Office added that the Mayor has “visited several immigrant and refugee communities throughout Chicago during the summer and fall months when the federal government was threatening raids to personally share ‘Know Your Rights’ information with businesses and community members.”

Moreover, Lightfoot signed a letter this past December in which she praised the arrival of new refugees to Chicago in response to an executive order by Trump that requires local jurisdictions to decide if they approve of the allocation of refugees in their territories.

On that letter, Lightfoot, who also opposed the rising cost of immigration services fees established by the Trump Administration, affirmed that the City of Chicago ensures “our doors continue to remain open to refugees from around the world that are seeking a new home for themselves and a new future in our great country.”

Wilmer Catalán Ramírez family members protest against his detention by ICE. Catalán Ramírez was included without proof on the Chicago Police gang database. (Courtesy OCAD)
Gang database: controversial and often inaccurate

Advocates and community leaders say that relying on a gang database that’s plagued with errors doesn’t comply with the promise of a Sanctuary City for undocumented immigrants.

Even for legal permanent residents and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, to be listed in a gang database, whether by error or confusion, could automatically make them a target in an immigration raid or be subject to deportation.

The City of Chicago Office of the Inspector General conducted a study of Chicago’s gang database and found several errors, said Alderman Ramírez Rosa. “There was no way of knowing what could be the reason why the police added you on that list. Some people were listed five times as members of five different and opposite gangs.”

For legal or undocumented immigrants, to be included on a gang database is one of the exceptions that allow local authorities to collaborate with ICE against them.

“The United States Constitution is very clear: you are innocent until proven guilty, and you have the opportunity to present your case in court. But ICE has used your name which appears on the list to harm you, to claim that you are a criminal and deport you,” said Ramírez Rosa in an interview with La Raza.

Wences, with OCAD, said that the issue of gang database errors has been discussed with other organizations that have also denounced the misuse of the database. “Not only because ICE has access to it, but also because it affects all communities,” she said.

A report published on April 11, 2019, by Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson, found errors in Chicago’s gang database. Ferguson indicated that the database includes the names of 134,000 people that Chicago Police has classified as gang members. But the database it’s being scrutinized and criticized for containing serious errors.

The lack of accuracy of this gang database has affected dozens of people who have been targeted by federal immigration law enforcement and have missed job opportunities after being mistakenly included, Ferguson said.

According to the report, public entities have accessed the gang database more than 1 million times over the past decade, including some 32,000 inquiries from ICE federal agents.

One case that exemplifies the flaws of the database is one of a 32-year-old man named Wilmer Catalán Ramírez, who was severely injured in an arrest that took place after ICE agents entered his home without a search warrant, according to court documents.

Catalán Ramírez, a resident of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, was detained as part of a nationwide raid operation by ICE held on March 27, 2017, which targeted possible gang members.

His attorneys claim their client never belonged to a gang. However, he had been included on the gang database by Chicago Police; therefore, Catalán Ramírez was automatically excluded from any protection under Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance.

In 2018, after 10 months of detention at the McHenry County Jail, Catalán Ramírez was released and the City of Chicago admitted it could not verify whether he was a member of a gang. Soon, the City removed Catalán Ramírez name from the gang database.

This and other cases reinforce the demands to remove the exceptions of Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance, and expand the protections that Chicago offers to the immigrant community.

Ward 25 Alderman Byron Sigcho said that there is a need for an ordinance that doesn’t have any type of exception and that fully protects the immigrant community. “We, as representatives of Latinos, want no exceptions in this ordinance, which still has some defects. That’s why we are asking for amendments.”

Sigcho emphasized that what’s being sought is that public entities fully and comprehensibly protect the immigrant community and that Chicago is a real Sanctuary City, where people can live peacefully.

“With concise and clear laws, we can have the same type of protection so that our community is welcomed the same way it has always has been,” the Alderman said.

In a statement to La Raza, the Office of Mayor Lightfoot said, that “the City is committed to a comprehensive reform of the way in which the Chicago Police Department tracks gangs in the City and identifies gang members. The Mayor’s Office is actively working on a new policy that would ensure all designations are accurate and supported by specific, documented, and reliable information. It would build in robust protections for individuals, and would be consistent with best practices from around the country. Gang-related information – like all of CPD’s systems – would not be shared with ICE or used for civil immigration enforcement purposes.”

A new ordinance, still incomplete

In this context, Lightfoot presented at the City Council meeting on December 18, 2019, the proposed ordinance Accountability on Communication and Transparency (ACT).

“Mayor Lightfoot was proud to introduce amendments to the Welcoming City Ordinance, through the ACT Ordinance, that strengthens protections and provides additional resources for immigrant communities,” according to a statement by the Office of the Mayor to La Raza. The ACT Ordinance was approved on January 15, 2020.

This ordinance limits the assistance that City agencies and employees may provide to immigration law enforcement operations and also limits the data they may share with ICE. According to a statement from Lightfoot’s Office, the ACT Ordinance “officially terminates ICE’s access to Chicago Police Department databases related to civil immigration enforcement activities.”

The ordinance also requires for Chicago Police to document requests for assistance it receives from federal immigration authorities.

But the ACT Ordinance does not address the issue of the four exceptions to the Welcoming City Ordinance, implying that collaboration between local authorities and ICE is still possible in the context of the four exceptions.

Alderman Ramírez Rosa, who supports both the amendment to the Welcoming City Ordinance to eliminate exceptions and the new ACT Ordinance, reiterated that the issue of exceptions has not been addressed in the second of the rules because they are part of a federal trial that has not yet concluded. That’s the reason they have decided not to interfere.

According to media reports, Ramírez Rosa said that he and other council members intend to address this issue once litigation is over. It is still uncertain as to when this will take place.

The ACT Ordinance is also looking “to develop policies for City facilities to ensure that these facilities remain safe and accessible to all Chicago residents, regardless of immigration status,” according to a press release from Lightfoot’s Office. The ordinance also establishes that the City will take “reasonable steps to establish a service through 311 that provides callers with information on immigration resources, even if the caller has limited proficiency in the English language,” which suggests that this information could be provided in different languages.

Pro-immigrant community activists and organizers described the approval of the ACT ordinance as the first step in a longer process of strengthening Chicago’s immigration protections, which should include removing exceptions to the Welcoming City Ordinance. “There is more work to be done, but this is a real step forward with important information measures to ensure compliance,” said Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center.

In a joint statement, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) and other organizations belonging to the Chicago Immigration Working Group (CIWG) reaffirmed their commitment to eliminate the remaining exceptions.

“While the ACT Ordinance is an important step toward our goal of making Chicago a true welcoming city, it does not protect all immigrants, especially those in our most vulnerable and marginalized communities,” said Glo Harn Choi, an undocumented immigrant and community organizer at HANA Center. “As the Mayor herself has stated previously, we must remove exceptions from the City’s protections that continue to make immigrants from criminalized black and brown communities vulnerable to federal immigration operations.”

Citlalli Bueno, immigration organizer with Enlace Chicago, added, “we look forward to working with the City as quickly as possible to get rid of the exceptions and to make Chicago a true welcoming city, not only by name but also in essence, where immigrant and their families feel welcomed and safe so they can progress.”

This story was first published by La Raza, the most widely read Spanish-language newspaper in Chicago.