Less than a week after Donald Trump’s election—and in the face of his plan to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, Mayor Rahm Emanuel promised that Chicago would remain a “sanctuary city,” one that doesn’t prosecute or target people solely on the basis of their immigration status.
“To all those who are, after Tuesday’s election, very nervous and filled with anxiety,” Emanuel said, “You are safe in Chicago, you are secure in Chicago, and you are supported in Chicago.”
Indeed, Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance should help the mayor make good on these promises by limiting the interactions that city employees, including police officers, have with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. With a few exceptions, city employees are not allowed to ask about a person’s immigration status or hand undocumented immigrants over to federal authorities. A recent amendment to the city law also bans police officers from intimidating or hurting someone based on their immigration status.
But despite these protections, it could still be difficult for the city to protect all undocumented immigrants from an aggressively anti-immigrant Trump administration. Immigration experts and advocates say that although the city has decided to not cooperate with ICE, ICE still has the authority to conduct raids in Chicago. In fact, there’s not much local authorities can do in any city if Trump wants to deport as many people as he’s promised. And, the ordinance isn’t absolute: exceptions in the law allow CPD and ICE to communicate and collaborate under some circumstances. While they were designed to address public safety, advocates say these exceptions are ineffective, arguing that they don’t make anyone safer, but exclude some undocumented Chicagoans from the city’s protections and make them unnecessarily vulnerable to arrest and deportation.
The law’s exceptions can be broken down into four different categories: An undocumented immigrant can be detained and then turned over to ICE if he or she has a criminal warrant, a prior felony conviction, a pending felony prosecution, or are in a gang database. In those cases CPD can arrest or detain someone “based solely on the belief that the person is not present legally in the United States,” as the law states, can grant ICE access to this person, and can communicate a person’s custody status or release date with ICE.
Under the ordinance, if a Chicago police officer interacts with an undocumented immigrant who fits into one of the four categories, the officer “can expedite their removal proceedings” by turning the individual over to ICE. And Van Huynh, a legal fellow at the Chicago chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, says that as a whole, these four exceptions allow for continued collaboration between ICE and CPD.
This makes undocumented immigrants more vulnerable than their peers with papers, according to Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Tsao concedes that Chicago’s ordinance is one of the strongest in the country. But he also says that under the ordinance “if it were an immigration warrant alone: don’t arrest. If it were a prior felony conviction or prosecution or gang listing: do not arrest. But together they allow an arrest.”
Advocates argue that although the stated reason for these exceptions is public safety, the “carve-outs,” as they’re called, actually do little to make people safer, and only make some undocumented immigrants more vulnerable.
“Someone with a [criminal] warrant can be picked up by the local police already,” says Tania Unzueta, a policy director for Mijente, a national organization involved in sanctuary city work and a coordinator with Chicago’s Immigrant Policy Working Group. “There’s no need to add immigrant enforcement for safety.” As far as someone who has a pending felony prosecution, “if the court thought that they were dangerous, they wouldn’t be out on bail,” Unzueta says. Unzueta is herself an undocumented immigrant with a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) permit that allows her to stay and work in the country.
Unzueta also argues that merely having a criminal conviction doesn’t make someone a public safety threat. Still, “if you’re undocumented and you have this 20-year-old conviction, you’re going to be treated differently because potentially you’re going to be turned over to immigration enforcement,” she says.
The ordinance also makes an exception for people listed in a gang database. But advocates similarly argue that appearing on such a database shouldn’t be enough to turn someone over to ICE, nor does it mean the person is really a threat.
Take the Chicago Police Department’s gang database, for example. Mark Fleming, a litigation coordinator at the National Immigrant Justice Center, likened it to the TSA no-fly list: People can be on it and not be aware they’re on it, or how to get their name off.
“It seems like it’s a very low standard to get information into that database, and then a very very high standard to get it out of there,” Fleming says. “In fact, there is no current path to getting information out of there.”
Huynh’s organization has heard similarly from community members that “an officer will look at what they’re wearing and say, ‘You’re in a gang because you’re wearing red.'”
To bolster the city’s protections to undocumented immigrants in the future, pro-immigrant organizations are looking to remove the law’s exceptions so the ordinance is absolute about the city not interacting with ICE. Huynh’s organization wants the ordinance to clearly state that if “immigration enforcement becomes really aggressive, that local law enforcement aren’t complicit in that.” Similarly, Fleming says that “there’s room to add further protections making crystal clear that when an operation involves immigration enforcement that CPD and any other agency is not to be involved.”
While activists consider these potential changes to city law, ICE told the Reader in a statement that its priority remains public safety: “We share the same overarching goal as our local partners—keeping our communities safe. ICE’s heightened enforcement priorities focus on convicted criminals and individuals who threaten public safety and national security. We are committed to working with our law enforcement partners in Chicago and nationwide to achieve that goal.”
More to the point, even if the city ordinance’s exemptions were removed, ICE still has the authority to operate in Chicago, and local law enforcement can’t interfere.
“If ICE raids are happening in the city, there’s not much the police can do about it,” Huynh says.
“Even though our welcoming ordinance has been on the books for ten years in one form or another,” Tsao adds, “ICE has continued to operate and will continue to operate, and there’s not a whole lot that the city can do about that.”
Activists argue that doesn’t let the city off the hook. “There’s a lot that can be done at the state, city, and county level that makes it that much more logistically difficult for ICE to reach the sorts of deportation numbers that they’re claiming they’re wanting to reach,” Fleming says.
When asked whether it planned to address the ordinance’s four exceptions and about its gameplan if Trump decides to take advantage of them, the mayor’s office emphasized its pledge for inclusion, but didn’t say what, if anything it would do about the carve-outs.
“It’s important not to speculate on actions that haven’t taken place,” the statement read. “What we do know is that while the Administration is changing, our values are not. The Welcoming City Ordinance stands as a reaffirmation of Chicago’s commitment to inclusion for all. And the Mayor has reiterated his commitment to protecting those values.”
Will this commitment be enough in the face of Trump? In the eyes of pro-immigration advocates, it remains to be seen. In their minds, removing these exclusions would prevent the federal government from exploiting city law, and ensure that Chicago remains a welcoming city in practice as well as in name.