Sheriff’s office helps immigration agents

April 14, 2009

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(WBEZ/File)
Sheriff Tom Dart’s office says the courthouse is the jurisdiction of the state’s attorney and chief judge.

Dozens of U.S. municipalities have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. A Cook County declaration bans the Sheriff's Office from assisting with an investigation of someone's immigration status. The stated goals are to build trust in local law enforcement and encourage immigrants to help fight domestic violence, drug trafficking and even terrorism. But almost two years since the sanctuary declaration passed, immigration agents are still getting assistance from the Sheriff's Office. Last year alone, according to the office, immigration officials took some 250 county inmates into custody.

SOUND: Office

In Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, attorney Salvador Cícero is having what he calls a routine morning. On the other side of his desk sits a 40-year-old homemaker. She wants help getting her husband out of jail

WIFE: Mi niño más chiquito pregunta, ‘Cuando va a llegar mi papi?'

She says their 10-year-old is asking for his daddy. Cícero picks up the phone to get answers from the Cook County Sheriff's Office.

CÍCERO: Lieutenant, how are you? I'm looking into the case of Miguel García. We wanted to make sure that he had been released. He paid his bail last Wednesday.

Police stopped García for allegedly driving under the influence. That charge turned into a felony because, like many undocumented immigrants, García couldn't provide a valid driver's license. García landed in a holding area of the courthouse on 26th and California.

Soon after his arrival, the Sheriff's Office began helping Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency known as ICE. The assistance seems at odds with the county's sanctuary declaration. First, the sheriff allowed ICE to interview García — even though, according to ICE, no federal statute requires that access.

Like many other inmates, García hadn't had a chance to speak with an attorney yet.

WHITE: Sometimes we're not sure if they even know who the ICE agents are.

Deborah White heads the Cook County Public Defender's felony trial division.

WHITE: And they give incriminating information to these agents.

As García prepared to post bond in his criminal case, ICE put a hold on him because he's an illegal alien. Then the Sheriff's Office helped the immigration agency again. The office kept García for ICE for more than two business days after he posted the bond. The federal government prohibits this.

Here's Salvador Cícero, the attorney, on the phone with the Sheriff's Office again.

CÍCERO: It has been past the 48 hours. So I would like this guy released. Can I follow up with you maybe in an hour? Thank you, Lieutenant. Bye.
MITCHELL: How often does this happen?
CÍCERO: Well, the reality is we've been seeing it two or three times a month, sometimes.

In a statement, Sheriff Tom Dart's Office says it never knowingly holds inmates for ICE beyond the 48 hours. And once inmates are in the jail next to the courthouse, the Sheriff's Office says it doesn't let ICE speak to them. Asked who's letting ICE interview inmates before their bond hearing, Dart's office says it's the jurisdiction of the State's Attorney and the Circuit Court chief judge.

Those officials respond that only the sheriff controls the courthouse's holding cells.

One man who's not happy with the way things are working at 26th and California is Cook County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado. He pushed the sanctuary declaration through the county board in 2007.

MALDONADO: None of the independent elected officials, like the state's attorney or the sheriff, none of them has gone to the courts to challenge our ordinance and say, ‘We are exempt.' Right now all of them, all those constitutional officers, must abide by the ordinance.

When it came to Miguel García's case, attorney Salvador Cícero says the Sheriff's Office didn't abide by the sanctuary measure.

But the county's independent inspector general, Patrick Blanchard, says his office hasn't received any complaints alleging sanctuary violations.

SOUND: Office.

In his Pilsen office, Cícero breaks some bad news to García's wife.

CÍCERO: Me pude comunicar con la teniente Johnson, que me confirmó que sí lo recogieron esta mañana.

He says the Sheriff's Office has handed over her husband to ICE.

WIFE: Aquí tengo mi casa pero si me esposo no está no voy a poder pagarla....

Garcia's wife says she won't be able to afford their house without him. And she worries about their two youngest. They're U.S. citizens.

García will now likely face deportation. And plenty of people believe he should, because he entered the country illegally. But Commissioner Maldonado says he'll keep fighting to sever links between the Sheriff's Office and federal immigration officials.