Activists demand the release of a Chicago immigrant being held at the Will County jail

Norberto Navarro rally
Supporters of Norberto Navarro pose for a photo Tuesday outside the Will County State's Attorney's Office in Joliet, where they rallied for his release. Lawyers for the 30-year-old Chicago immigrant are taking the state's attorney's office to court, arguing that detaining Navarro is a violation of his constitutional rights and Illinois state law. The lawyers contend that Navarro is being held, without charge until he testifies as a witness in an upcoming trial, on an agreement with federal immigration authorities. Provided courtesy of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos
Norberto Navarro rally
Supporters of Norberto Navarro pose for a photo Tuesday outside the Will County State's Attorney's Office in Joliet, where they rallied for his release. Lawyers for the 30-year-old Chicago immigrant are taking the state's attorney's office to court, arguing that detaining Navarro is a violation of his constitutional rights and Illinois state law. The lawyers contend that Navarro is being held, without charge until he testifies as a witness in an upcoming trial, on an agreement with federal immigration authorities. Provided courtesy of Centro de Trabajadores Unidos

Activists demand the release of a Chicago immigrant being held at the Will County jail

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A 30-year-old Chicago immigrant is being held at the Will County jail without charge because he is a material witness to a fatal car crash, according to an emergency petition filed this month with the Will County Circuit Court.

Norberto Navarro witnessed a 2017 car crash that killed a pregnant woman and her three children. Navarro tried, but he was unable to save them. Months later, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow charged Sean Woulfe with reckless homicide. Woulfe posted bond. He is free and awaiting trial. Navarro has agreed to testify for the prosecution in its case against Woulfe. Lawyers for Navarro contend that Will County is illegally holding him, until he testifies in that case, on an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Navarro struggled to cope with the trauma of the car crash, according to his mother, Aida Navarro. Afterwards, he had difficulty sleeping. He’d wake up screaming from dreams in which he tried to save the woman. In 2019, 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 Adult Detention Facility to serve as a material witness in the fatal car crash case.

ICE had started removal proceedings for Navarro, a legal permanent resident, but later closed his case administratively.

“ICE therefore has no grounds to require the Will County Assistant State’s Attorney to return Mr. Navarro to ICE custody after he has testified in these proceedings. As discussed below, these conditions also violate the Illinois Way Forward Act,” read the emergency motion filed by Navarro’s lawyers.

Glasgow did not immediately respond to WBEZ’s request for comment.

The Illinois Way Forward Act, which took effect this year, prevents county jails in the state from contracting with ICE to detain immigrants. Kankakee, McHenry and Pulaski counties had previously held such contracts with ICE.

To comply with the new law, dozens of immigrants facing deportation who had been held at jails in McHenry and Kankakee counties have been transferred out of state, according to one local immigration activist. Many of the immigrant detainees were transferred to Indiana, Texas and Oklahoma.

On Tuesday, supporters of Navarro rallied outside the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office in Joliet.

“He’s being held in violation of one of the most fundamental rights that we all enjoy, which is the right to liberty,” said Nicole Hallett, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago.

Noberto Navarro
Noberto Navarro Provided courtesy of Aida Navarro / Provided courtesy of Aida Navarro

“He is a witness. He is a hero, and he has agreed to testify in the criminal trial in a few weeks. Yet, despite all of these facts, the Will County State’s Attorney’s Office is holding him as a material witness.”

Hallett said her team filed an emergency motion asking Will County Judge Daniel Rippy to release Navarro.

“My son is a hero,” Aida Navarro said in Spanish. “He is being detained unjustly.”

Aida Navarro said her son wants to be home so he can celebrate his daughter’s 10th birthday next week. “He doesn’t deserve to be in jail,” she told a crowd of supporters. “We want him free.”

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