Tensions Soar in Waukegan

July 17, 2007

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Cops face protesters last night at Waukegan's city hall.

The Waukegan City Council last night voted to proceed with plans to send local police officers for training to enforce immigration law. The vote affirmed a council decision last month that widened a division in the northern suburb. As Chicago Public Radio's Chip Mitchell reports, the sides remain far apart.

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Ambi: Dogs barking

A canine unit and mounted officers backed dozens of riot-clad police in front of Waukegan's City Hall last night. They formed a wedge between two protests.

One consisted of about 200 people waving U.S. flags. They called for the city to apply for the police training.

FLANNIGAN: What is wrong with wanting to deport people who commit murder?

Waukegan native Fred Flannigan hosts an AM radio show in town.

FLANNIGAN: What is wrong with wanting to deport people who rape? And what is wrong with wanting to deport child molesters?

The training is known as 287(g) after a 1996 law that authorizes teaching local police to identify undocumented immigrants and begin deportation proceedings.

Police Chief William Biang says Waukegan would send just two of its officers to a five-week course.

BIANG: People that are going to be doing this are going to be supervisory-level personnel, and there will be one assigned to the detective bureau, and one assigned to the gang and narcotics unit, and that's what we're going to use them for-only the serious offenders that meet our policy.

But Chief Biang has had a hard time selling the plan to Latinos, who constitute more than half of Waukegan's 90,000 residents.

About 4,000 Latinos converged for the other protest at City Hall last night. They included local residents, and activists from beyond Waukegan.

Ambi: El pueblo callado, jamás será escuchado...

They say the police training will discourage undocumented immigrants from reporting crime. They're also upset about housing inspections and a three-year-old ordinance that impounds cars of unlicensed drivers. Local organizer Ricardo Rosas says it's no coincidence that many undocumented immigrants get busted at police checkpoints.

ROSAS: Right now the excuse has been checking for seatbelts or checking for DUIs, but who's going to be drinking at 3 o'clock p.m. on a weekday? Why are you checking for DUIs?

FOURKAS: I don't involve myself in politics, but this is hurting me.

That's Tom Fourkas. He owns a Waukegan grocery store called Lewis Fresh Market.

FOURKAS: It's hurting my business. It's hurting other business people in the area. I've spoken to a lot of them, and everyone is suffering. The people stay in their houses because they're afraid to come out. They don't want to get in their cars and drive. People in surrounding areas -- they don't want to come here.

It isn't helping any that several immigrant rights groups are boycotting Waukegan businesses that don't post signs against the police training. That's sparked a counter boycott by the other side.

Last night Alderman Tony Figueroa tried to put the conflict in historical perspective. He told the City Council he doesn't condone illegal immigration.

FIGUEROA: But I'm also opposed to the vilification and demonizing of our immigrants. What you're seeing tonight has happened to every immigrant group that has come to this country.

But Alderman John Balen said he fought in World War II for a reason.

BALEN: Our way of life. Laws mean something (applause). We are a country of laws. It is the fiber that keeps this melting pot of different peoples, each with a language of their own, on an even keel of freedom, prosperity and hope. Enforcement of the laws keeps our society functioning in order that we can live side by side with our neighbors.

Balen's way of thinking prevailed. The city council and mayor voted 8 to 2 to proceed with the police training.

Mayor Richard Hyde says the vote ought to end the boycotts.

HYDE: I hope now that all the people -- all the whites, the blacks and the Hispanics -- go back to supporting the businesses in Waukegan that they have before.

But immigrant advocates in Waukegan say that isn't going to happen. They promise to continue resisting city plans to give local police a larger role in enforcing immigration law.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.