Federal immigration official warns Preckwinkle about policy

The nation's top immigration official has written a stern warning to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle about her policy that allowed Saul Chavez to skip bail and run out on felony charges.

"This ordinance undermines public safety in Cook County and hinders ICE's ability to enforce the nation's immigration laws," wrote John Morton, director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, on Jan. 4, the day my first column on Chavez ran.

The letter was obtained by the Tribune on Thursday.

"The potential gravity of Cook County's actions is highlighted in very real terms in today's Chicago Tribune concerning the case of Saul Chavez," Morton wrote.

In June, Chavez allegedly drove drunk and hit a pedestrian, dragging the body along Kedzie Avenue. He had previously been convicted of another drunken driving charge. Under the old policy, Cook County would have had to notify federal officials before Chavez, an illegal alien, was released from custody. The process is known as a "federal detainer."

But the new policy by Preckwinkle and members of the county board -- I call them the "Chavez 11" -- allowed the suspect to post bond and be released without the county notifying ICE.

Morton also warned Preckwinkle that her new policy jeopardizes millions of dollars in federal funds granted to Cook County to pay for the cost of holding illegal immigrants under the detainer program. Preckwinkle and her allies argue that it costs the county money to hold the suspects.

Morton said Cook County was reimbursed with almost $3.4 million in 2010 and some $4.4 million in 2009.

"Without access to the Cook County jails, ICE's ability to accurately verify the immigration status of criminal aliens detained by Cook County becomes more difficult. Moreover, it is fundamentally inconsistent for Cook County to request federal reimbursement for the cost of detaining aliens who commit or are charged with crimes while at the same time thwarting ICE's efforts to remove those very same aliens from the United States," Morton wrote.

He also argues that the ordinance "disrupts the federal government's efforts to remove deportable criminal offenders from the country and instead allows for their release back into the community. In light of criminal recidivism rates, the release of so many of these individuals to the streets of Cook County is deeply troubling and directly undermines public safety."

Since the Chavez 11 passed the new ordinance allowing suspects to flee the country, Morton writes that ICE has lodged federal detainers against more than 268 individuals either charged or convicted of crimes, including offenses like assaults on police officers.

"Cook County has not honored any of these more than 268 detainers, however, preventing ICE from considering removal proceedings against all but 15 of these individuals whom we were able to locate independently and arrest following their release into the community," Morton wrote.

Preckwinkle was quoted in a Sun Times column by Mark Brown on Thursday defending her position. She said that those who would use the Chavez fiasco to resume the policy of holding illegal immigrants in jail were "pandering to fear-mongering and race-baiting."
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