Berwyn relaxes towing policy that hit immigrants especially hard

April 29, 2013

A suburb west of Chicago is relaxing a tough car-towing policy because of its effects on immigrants.

An order signed by Berwyn Police Chief James D. Ritz says the “towing, impounding and seizing of a vehicle” operated by an unlicensed driver “may be decided by the use of officer discretion unless the vehicle is uninsured.”

Berwyn officials say the order softens enforcement of a 2007 ordinance that allows the city to charge the unlicensed motorists $500, not including towing and storage costs, to recover impounded vehicles.

Berwyn was among several heavily immigrant Chicago suburbs that enacted strict towing measures before proposals to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws stalled in Congress in 2007. The ordinances hurt immigrants who, because of their unlawful presence in the country, didn’t qualify for an Illinois license.

“We still don’t condone people [breaking] the law and driving without a license,” said Michael Cimaglia, a Berwyn police commander who met with immigrant advocates to hammer out a policy. “However, we’ve modified the policy so it’s not as hard on some of the residents.”

Berwyn now allows unlicensed motorists to turn over the car to a licensed driver or park it.

Immigrant advocates said Berwyn officials heard a message from Latino residents. “We’re here to stay,” said Julie O’Reilly Castillo of the Interfaith Leadership Project, which pressed for the policy. “Respect us and be a little bit flexible because there are things beyond our control that leave people vulnerable.”

Under an agreement with the advocates, Berwyn is also putting its entire police department — nearly 200 employees — through a three-hour training session focused on ethnic sensitivity. Cimaglia says the goal is more compassion for the city’s immigrants.

About 60 percent of Berwyn’s 56,657 residents are Latino, according to U.S. census figures. That population includes thousands — the exact number is unknown — who lack authorization to be in the United States.

The state of Illinois, meanwhile, is planning to begin issuing temporary driver’s licenses to unauthorized immigrants this fall.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.