Some central Illinois law enforcement agencies hold non-citizen prisoners on behalf of federal immigration officials. That gives immigration officials time to decide if the prisoner should be transferred to a detention facility and possibly deported. The agreement is designed to help crack down on hardened criminals, but there are concerns that it may go too far. In the first of a two part series, IPR's Sean Powers reports on how this partnership is playing out in McLean County.
Angelina Lopez is a single mother living with three grown children in the Bloomington-Normal area. She illegally came to the United States with them from Mexico about 10 years ago. Last October, Lopez was leaving a movie theatre in Bloomington where she worked as a custodian. She says she noticed a patrol car and remained extra vigilant, not to give the police any reason to pull her over. But as soon as she pulled out of the parking lot, she says she was stopped and asked for her driver's license, which she didn't have.
"I think that they asked for my identification and my license, they asked if I was carrying drugs in the trunk. I said "no, you can check."
Lopez was charged with several traffic violations, including driving without a license and operating an uninsured vehicle.
"It's not as if we're going out and making traffic stops solely for the purpose of checking the driver's papers."
That's McLean County Sheriff Mike Emery. Sheriff Emery says his office is responsible for about 30 percent of the arrests of non-citizens in McLean County. Once a person is brought to the county jail, their fingerprints are scanned and transmitted to the FBI, and forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, can then determine if that person is eligible to be deported. As a courtesy, the sheriff's office contacts ICE about non-citizen arrests. From the beginning of July 2011 through the start of this September, there have been roughly 180 arrests in McLean County in which people were held in the local jail on behalf of ICE. According to county records, nearly 40 percent of those arrested, like Angelina Lopez, only had traffic violations on their record at the time of their arrest. The jail can only hold someone on behalf of ICE for up to 48 hours, not including weekends and holidays. ICE can then determine if that person is eligible to be deported. It's a process ICE Director John Morton says makes communities safer. Here he is testifying before Congress this summer.
"In very large jurisdictions in the United States, the rate of recidivism for criminal offenders can be as high as 50 percent or more. When ICE can come in and remove offenders from a given community, so that they can't re-offend. Well, guess what? We take that recidivism rate to zero."
Lopez is less likely to be deported than someone with felonies and misdemeanors on their record. She stands a greater chance at being removed from the country than someone with only a couple of traffic offenses. Since 2004, she's been pulled over six times for a total of 17 traffic violations. After being arrested last fall, she says she was held in the McLean County jail for a couple of days before being transferred to the Jefferson County Justice Center in Mt. Vernon, one of the detention facilities that contracts with ICE. Lopezsays she was transported there in a van with about 20 other people, who were handcuffed and shackled at the waist.
"Along the way, they were smoking. They were driving excessively fast. They turned the radio volume up very high, someone needed to use the restroom. He asked if they would give him permission to do this, but they said no. They gave him a bag for him to do it in front of everybody. They didn't free his hands. They didn't remove any cuffs at all. He had to do his necessities with handcuffs still on him."
Lopez says she stayed at the Mt. Vernon jail for about three weeks before being transferred to another holding facility in Chicago for a day. From there, she was released, and ended up getting a ride back to Bloomington from a stranger she met in Chicago. After three weeks following her initial arrest, she was reunited with her children.
"It was something I didn't ever imagine. I thought there would be time to go back to my daughters. So many thoughts ran through my mind because I didn't imagine it would be this way, that I wouldn't be able to see them."
Lopez has an immigration hearing in the spring where she will likely find out if she'll be deported. Bloomington-Normal immigration activist Sonny Garcia says Sheriff Emery's office needs to use more discretion when contacting ICE.
"We have no issue with him detaining hardened criminals. The only issue we have is when he's dealing with people, like Angelina, who are here working, who've got families that have lived here for years and years and are not a threat to our community."
Sheriff Emery last year changed a policy that allowed correctional officers to alert ICE about people suspected of being in this country illegally.
"We decided that it was discriminatory because my suspicions could be different from your suspicions. So to make it a non-discriminatory policy, we changed that to all non-U.S born citizens the staff will contact ICE for identification and verification."
But that change doesn't address Garcia's concerns. Emery says it wouldn't be fair for him to only report people who commit more serious crimes, like felonies and misdemeanors, and not alert immigration officials about people who commit minor traffic offenses.
"How would you feel if this group of individuals we're letting slide by not enforcing the law, but then you run a stop sign and we issue you a ticket? That's what selective enforcement is all about, and we don't participate in that."
McLean County's willingness to contact immigration officials about non-citizen arrests, and honor the 48-hour ICE holds isn't unusual. Just about the entire country is enrolled in a similar program through ICE called "Secure Communities." Tomorrow, we'll explore that policy in more detail.
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