ICE offer on ‘detainer’ costs draws mixed reaction

March 1, 2012

Commissioner Jesús García (D-Chicago)Cook County officials are voicing mixed reactions to an extraordinary U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offer to cover the costs of holding some inmates beyond what their criminal cases require.

County Board Commissioner Jesús García (D-Chicago) said keeping people locked up after they’ve posted bond, served their sentence or had their charges dismissed would violate constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Accepting ICE’s offer, he added, would have “a significant chilling effect” on local policing.

“The county would be seen as an extension of ICE, operating within local government,” García said. “The immigrant community and all of the different groups that are affected by this would just shut down and cease to cooperate with law enforcement and with government in general.”

The reimbursement offer came in a Feb. 13 letter from ICE Director John Morton to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. The letter also proposed that the county restore ICE’s ability to interview detainees inside the jail, provide ICE access to “any county records necessary” to identify deportable inmates, schedule inmate releases for business hours and provide 24 hours’ notice to ICE.

In September, an ordinance backed by Preckwinkle effectively ended the county’s compliance with ICE requests known as “detainers.” Those requests kept specified inmates in jail up to two business days longer than required by their criminal case’s judge. The ordinance barred the sheriff from honoring ICE detainers unless the feds agreed to pay for the extended confinement. County officials say that confinement costs about $142 a day per inmate.

Morton blasted the ordinance in a January letter, claiming it undermines public safety and hinders ICE’s ability to enforce immigration laws.

His offer to Cook County signals a possible change in ICE policy. The agency last year said it did not reimburse local jails for the cost of honoring its detainers.

Asked whether the offer could set a precedent for other jails, the agency sent a written statement that said Cook County reimbursements would be “unlikely” if ICE were “once again permitted to work inside” the jail and if the county provided the 24-hour notice. “ICE officers would immediately take custody of detainees on the same day of their scheduled release,” the statement said.

County Board Commissioner Peter Silvestri (R-Elmwood Park), who voted against the ordinance, said Morton’s offer focuses the debate on public safety and constitutional questions. “If the argument against complying with ICE detainers was that it’s a financial burden on the county, that argument has been resolved,” Silvestri said.

Preckwinkle’s office said Wednesday she was studying Morton’s proposals and couldn’t respond to them yet.

Preckwinkle has defended the ordinance and pointed out that citizens, not just suspected immigration violators, can cause trouble after getting out of jail. In January, she ordered a six-month study aimed at improving the bond system so inmates who threaten public safety remain in jail.

Another county official predicted that complying with the detainers again would give inmates reason to sue for false imprisonment. “When they get compensated by a jury, are the feds going to come across and pay that bill too?” asked Patrick Reardon, first assistant Cook County public defender.

The county paid $72,000 to settle two 2008 lawsuits over detainers involving five inmates, according to Patrick Driscoll Jr., a deputy Cook County state’s attorney.

García and Reardon said allowing ICE officials to interview jail inmates would violate a 2007 County Board resolution aimed at removing the county from immigration enforcement.

Morton’s proposals include creating a “joint working group,” consisting of county and ICE employees, to resolve detainer issues and schedule implementation of his plan. Morton pointed out his plan would require amending or repealing the September ordinance.

“Morton has [offered] the olive branch and said that he would like to have a working group established so that they can discuss any remaining issues beyond the cost,” Commissioner Tim Schneider (R-Bartlett) said. “We need to find out what these last issues are in order for ICE to be able to do its job and function effectively in Cook County.”

Silvestri and Schneider have each proposed an amendment to scale back the ordinance so it allows detainer compliance for inmates deemed most dangerous. The amendments were the subject of a heated County Board hearing Feb. 9.

At the hearing, Sheriff Tom Dart said the jail had released 346 inmates named on ICE detainers since the ordinance passed. He said 11 of those individuals ended up arrested again. The charges varied.

Dart also voiced support for Schneider’s proposal, which would require compliance with detainers for inmates who appeared on a federal terrorist list or who faced any of several serious felony charges.

Dart’s office Wednesday did not answer whether it supported Morton’s proposals but said it favors “anything that helps bring sanity to the current situation.”