Federal Immigration Agencies Used Chicago Gang Database Thousands Of Times | WBEZ
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Federal Immigration Agencies Used Chicago Gang Database Thousands Of Times

Over the past two decades, federal immigration agencies searched the Chicago Police Department’s gang database at least 32,000 times, according to a newly released report from the city’s Office of Inspector General.

Being listed as a gang member can lead to grave consequences, including deportation, for some immigrants. However, the city’s OIG report cites numerous inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the gang database, a collection of sources the Police Department uses to maintain information on Chicago street gangs and individuals believed to be affiliated with them.

The searches were made by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services between Jan. 1, 1997, and Nov. 7, 2018, according to the report, which was released Thursday.

Those agencies were among more than 500 law-enforcement and other entities with whom the Chicago Police Department shared the gang database without any protocols or agreements governing how the information can be used, according to the OIG report.

The searches performed by the federal immigration agencies go directly against the city’s sanctuary ordinance and the Police Department’s own directives, the report states.

“Unless there is a legitimate law enforcement purpose, unrelated to civil immigration enforcement, no department member shall permit immigration and Customs enforcement (ICE) agents access to individuals being detained or in the custody of CPD, permit ICE agents to use Departmental facilities for investigations or expend time on duty responding to ICE inquiries about an individual’s custody status,” the report states.

Nicole Alberico, a spokeswoman for ICE, declined to give details about the agency’s use of the database. But she said “ICE officers and agents use the resources available to verify and investigate claims of criminal activity and gang membership.”

A federal Customs and Border Protection official said the agency has a “DHS Fusion Center” located in Chicago where information is shared among law-enforcement agencies, but the official declined to answer questions about the gang database or the OIG report.

USCIS spokeswoman Jessica Collins said the agency “strives to protect the homeland and combat instances of fraud, abuse and other activities threatening the integrity of our nation’s immigration system.”

USCIS is the agency that processes applications for visas and citizenship. The agency also handles requests for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a two-year protection permit for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children approved by former President Barack Obama.

Citing USCIS sources, the OIG report states that “individuals may be denied authorization because they are considered a ‘threat to national security or public safety’ for which ‘indicators’ include gang membership.”

This means that immigrants applying for visas, such as a U-visa for victims of crime, or protection from deportation through DACA could be denied if their names are included in the gang database. 

“The report confirms what we’ve been saying for the last two years,” said Rey Wences, a member with the pro-immigrant group Organized Communities Against Deportation. “We know this — agencies share data and are able to access it without any type of oversight. What’s problematic about this is that under a specially aggressive immigration enforcement by the federal administration, local systems such as the gang database are being exploited.”

Chicago immigration activists like Wences have been fighting against the gang database following a 2017 case filed in federal court by a father living in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.

Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez was shot as he was leaving a restaurant in January 2017. Catalan-Ramirez suffered serious injuries, including a traumatic brain injury. Two months later, seven ICE agents raided his home without a warrant. According to Catalan-Ramirez’s lawsuit, the agents fractured his left shoulder before arresting him.

The lawsuit alleges that ICE obtained false information from the Chicago Police Department’s gang database identifying Catalan-Ramirez as a gang member.

It was that “gang member” identification that stripped Catalan-Ramirez of the protections granted to undocumented immigrants under Chicago’s sanctuary city ordinance.

Chicago’s Welcoming City Ordinance was approved in 2012. The ordinance prohibits local agencies from asking immigrants about their legal status while seeking city services or talking with Chicago police officers. It also protected immigrants from being detained by federal agencies unless undocumented immigrants are convicted of a serious crime or are seen as a threat to public safety.

In January 2018, Catalan-Ramirez was released from an immigration detention center. He was granted permission to stay in the country with his family while his visa application is processed, according to his lawyers.

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

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