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County board to debate controversial immigration policy

Wednesday, February 08, 2012
Chicago Sun-Times
by Lisa Donovan

Cook County commissioners will be on the hot seat Thursday as they face critics and supporters of a controversial policy directing the county sheriff to ignore requests from the feds to hold suspected illegal immigrants in jail longer. Immigration rights activists, expected to show up by the dozens at a public hearing in the downtown county board room, will call on elected leaders to stand by the new policy, which saves county taxpayers money and some of the U.S. citizens drawn in to deportation investigations, merely because of their last names. Brian McCann, too, is expected to testify that the new policy paved the way for his brother’s alleged killer to post bond, walk out of jail and disappear. “My effort here is to restore some measure of justice because the retribution my family is seeking has been lost — this ordinance allowed my brother’s [accused] killer to flee. The effort is to try and prevent this from happening to another family,” Brian McCann told the Sun-Times this week, noting he’d like to repeal the policy or change it. It was the McCann family’s heartbreaking loss and criticism of county policy — reported in the Sun-Times and other outlets — that prompted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton to send a letter to County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, questioning whether the policy is legal. Preckwinkle, who has said the bond set for suspects is the real issue in play and not immigration policy, stood by the measure and invited Morton to meet. Neither are expected to attend Thursday’s hearing, their spokespersons say. William “Denny” McCann, 66, was struck and killed as he crossed the street in the Logan Square neighborhood last summer. Saul Chavez, 36, was charged in the deadly hit-and-run crash on the city’s Northwest Side back in June 2011. His family posted 10 percent of the bond or $25,000 and he was released in late November. He’s since vanished. In the days after Chavez’s arrest, immigration officials issued a “detainer” for him, asking that the county jail notify the agency when he posted bond and to detain him up to 48 hours so agents could pick him up for possible deportation proceedings. Under the new policy, he was released. The high-profile case pushed county leaders to revisit the policy, though it’s not clear it will move the needle much. Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Preckwinkle, who championed the policy change, say they have no intention of backing down. They and others have pointed to an Indiana federal court ruling calling the detainers “requests” — not formal arrest warrants. Under the old policy “we were holding people hostage, there was no legal reason to hold them,” Commissioner Larry Suffredin said. Nothing will be voted on at the close of the public hearing, but commissioners will mull over the testimony as they consider two amendments: One giving Sheriff Tom Dart sole discretion over detainer enforcement. The second, endorsed by Dart, calling on his office to enforce detainers involving those facing various violent and other felonies, high-level drug offenses and anyone on a terrorist watch list. Several commissioners have quietly raised concerns that Thursday’s meeting could devolve in to an ugly war of words over immigration. To that, Commissioner Tim Schneider, a Northwest suburban Republican who objects to ignoring the detainers wholesale, said: “This isn’t an issue about immigration, this is an issue about public safety — do we want people charged with serious violent felonies released back in to the community or do we want them held pursuant to these ICE detainers?”

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