A difficult case in Chicago highlights the choices local governments have to make when forced to deal with complex immigration enforcement measures by the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Cook County in Illinois made headlines last year when it became the only jurisdiction to disregard immigration detainers from ICE. Now it faces public scrutiny after Saul Chavez, a suspected drunken driver charged with murder, is AWOL.

Local police units are under Janet Napolitano's jurisdiction. Photo by Center for American Progress.

Local police units are under Janet Napolitano’s jurisdiction. Photo by Center for American Progress.

Saul Chavez is accused of killing a pedestrian on a northwest side of Chicago street last year. Days after, he went in front of a judge who set bond at $250,000. He paid ten percent of that, and walked free. Soon after, he was gone and has not gone to court since.

In his absence, the family of the victim is blaming Cook county’s breakup with ICE as the reason for their anger, as the Chicago Tribune reported:

“My anger is more directed at the fumbling and bumbling of Cook County agencies,” said McCann’s younger brother, Brian. “I’m more angry at the system than the offender. I know that sounds crazy.”

Anger at the system is what took pro-immigrant organizers to seek the change in policy. Before Cook County’s actions, ICE detainers trapped Chicago residents who clearly did not deserve to sit around in jail waiting for an immigration hearing.The Chavez case is horrific – witnesses say he dragged his victim for more than 200 feet – but his immigration status is less dangerous to the common good than his drunk attempt to operate a motor vehicle.

Another case shows why Cook County should not automatically detain every undocumented person they come in contact with. On July 12, 2011, Marcelo Castañeda’s family member contacted the police in Illinois to assist her in getting into her locked car. He was then placed in deportation proceedings and held by Cook County for a week. Highlighting that he lived in the U.S. for most of his life, Castañeda’s supporters were able to win his release.

The reason why Saul Chavez has more to do with how courts handle bails, than how police units should handle immigration law. In this context, President Obama has tried to spook American citizens (“We are going after the worst of the worst!”) in justifying his support for increased deportations through programs that encourage local involvement in immigration enforcement, such as Secure Communities.

With the District of Columbia’s city council considering a detainer policy change similar to Cook County’s, the issue might soon be hot news in this area. Like Chicago, the city of Washington could benefit from a more productice immigrant population if it stands behind them in their aspirations for a legal ID, an education, and a trusting relationship with the Metropolitan Police Department. Last week, supporters of changing the detainer policy packed the room at a judiciary committee hearing.

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