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Kwame Raoul

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is pictured in a 2014 file photo at the state Capitol in Springfield during his tenure as a state senator. Fifteen Illinois elected officials are now calling on Raoul to intervene in a case involving a Mexican immigrant detained in Will County. In a letter sent to Raoul this week and obtained by WBEZ, the officials tell Raoul that Will County is breaking state law by holding the immigrant and by working with federal immigration authorities.

Seth Perlman

Lawmakers accuse Will County of violating state law and ask the attorney general to intervene

Fifteen Illinois elected officials have told the state’s top prosecutor that if he doesn’t intervene, the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office will violate a pair of state laws that offer protections to undocumented immigrants, according to a letter obtained by WBEZ.

In the letter to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, the elected officials outlined the case of Mexican immigrant Norberto Navarro, who is being held in the Will County jail until he appears as a material witness in a criminal court hearing next week. Navarro witnessed a 2017 car crash that killed a pregnant woman and her three children. Navarro tried, but he was unable to save them. He’s agreed to testify in the trial against the driver.

Nearly two years after the crash, Navarro was sentenced to 40 months in prison following a drug charge. Navarro completed his prison sentence in January, but instead of releasing him, federal officials transferred him to the Will County jail. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had started removal proceedings for Navarro, a legal permanent resident, but later closed his case administratively.

In the letter to Raoul, the elected officials contend that Will County is working with ICE and will return Navarro to federal custody following the hearing on Tuesday, all of which is in violation of the Illinois Trust Act and the Illinois Way Forward Act.

“We have been made aware that the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office entered into an agreement with [U.S.] Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on January 18, 2022 to detain [Navarro], a resident of Illinois since 1999,” the letter reads. “Mr. Navarro has no federal warrant or criminal charge against him, and is not serving a criminal sentence. He was being held by ICE solely on the basis of civil immigration violations.

“The Will County State’s Attorney’s Office agreed to detain Mr. Navarro, provide information about his detention to ICE, and return Mr. Navarro to the custody of ICE after he testifies in a trial on March 22,” the letter continues.

The Illinois Trust Act was passed in 2017. The law sets limits on when local law enforcement can hold a person for a civil immigration violation. This year, the Illinois Way Forward Act went into effect. It prohibits local government agreements with ICE. To comply with the new law, officials in Pulaski, McHenry and Kankakee counties released or transferred all immigrants facing deportation that were being held in their county jails.

“The Illinois Attorney General is the representative of the state tasked with protecting the interests of the state and its people, and is the sole entity responsible for enforcing the Trust Act,” the letter continues. “The Will County State’s Attorney’s Office flagrantly violated the Trust Act by entering into an agreement with ICE, and, as outlined by the agreement, intends to continue to violate the Act by transferring Mr. Navarro to ICE on or around March 22.”

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office confirmed its communication with federal authorities but asserted that its objective has always been to secure the critical testimony of Navarro, the sole eyewitness to the 2017 fatal car crash. Will County officials even offered some assistance in Navarro’s efforts to obtain a U-visa, a temporary visa for victims of a crime, according to the statement.

“This Office contacted the federal government which was in the process of deportation proceedings for Mr. Navarro. This contact was made solely to obtain Mr. Navarro’s presence in Will County as a material witness in this criminal case,” the statement read. “This office is not assisting in any action by the federal government to deport Mr. Navarro, and our intent has never been to assist with any deportation proceeding.”

“To the contrary, [Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow] compassionately acknowledged the trauma Mr. Navarro experienced and used his discretion to sign a U-Visa application classifying Mr. Navarro an actual victim in this case based upon the harrowing experience of being an eyewitness and then attempting to render aid in the unspeakable aftermath,” the statement continued. “If this Office were coordinating with the federal government, the State’s Attorney would not have signed the U-Visa application.”

Will County officials said Navarro and his attorney voluntarily agreed to the use of a material witness bond.

“Material witness bonds are used to ensure that key witnesses appear in court to provide crucial testimony at trial,” read the statement from the state’s attorney’s office. “Mr. Navarro’s bond will be dismissed at the conclusion of his testimony.”

Without commenting directly on Navarro’s case, the Office of the Illinois Attorney General also issued a statement Friday afternoon indicating its commitment to both state laws.

“The Way Forward Act and the TRUST Act will facilitate trust building and collaboration between our diverse immigrant communities and law enforcement agencies, and they are essential to enhancing public safety throughout Illinois,” the statement read. “The Attorney General’s office has been committed to defending the laws’ constitutionality in court, and we look forward to discussing with lawmakers the enforcement of both laws, which make immigrant communities, and all Illinois communities, safer.”

In requesting that the attorney general intervene, the elected officials named in the letter — which include more than a dozen state lawmakers and a congresswoman — hope to send a clear message.

“We have to do our due diligence of the work to make sure people are following the [Illinois] Trust Act and the Illinois Way Forward [Act],” said State Senator Celina Villanueva, one of the officials who signed the letter.

Earlier this month, immigration advocates held a press conference asking a judge to release Navarro from the Will County jail and allow him to wait for the court hearing at home with his daughter. Navarro’s lawyer had asked the judge to release him. Will County Judge Daniel Rippy approved Will County’s request to issue a $1 million material witness bond. Now, Navarro’s family is concerned that he will be shipped to a federal facility after the criminal hearing.

“We’re hoping that the attorney general’s office will actually step in and either file an injunction or ensure this collaboration actually stops and Norberto is released,” said Ana Guajardo, president of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos, a community organizing group on Chicago’s Southeast Side that advocates for immigrant workers and communities.

Guajardo said Navarro is also a victim of a crime. He was traumatized by the fatal car crash.

“He saw this mother with her four children, including the one in the womb, die in front of his eyes without being able to provide any help. He couldn’t get them out of the car. There’s no reason why Norberto should be detained,” she said.

María Inés Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.

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