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Feds seek compromise on Cook County immigration ordinance

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012 10:15 a.m. CDT

(MCT) — Working behind the scenes, the head of the country's immigration enforcement agency has offered to pay the costs of holding suspected illegal immigrants who are arrested for other crimes in Cook County, part of an effort to get county officials to reconsider their refusal to cooperate with federal detention requests.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton has harshly criticized a Cook County ordinance that orders the sheriff's office to ignore ICE detainers and release illegal immigrants who have been jailed on other charges after they've posted bail. County officials have said the measure is partly related to the costs of keeping suspected illegal immigrants locked up.

In a letter sent last week to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle that was obtained by the Tribune, Morton offered to pay any additional expenses of holding inmates until they can be picked up for deportation proceedings.

Morton also said the detainees would be picked up on the same day they've posted bail. Under his proposal, federal immigration officials would be stationed at Cook County Jail and ICE would be notified in advance about when illegal immigrants were scheduled to be released.

"I believe this proposal serves our mutual interest in protecting the public safety of Cook County and honoring our nation's immigration laws," Morton wrote in his Feb. 13 letter.

ICE officials declined to elaborate on Morton's letter. Preckwinkle's office said in a statement that she hopes to meet with Morton and others to discuss the ordinance.

"The issues we are addressing involve several stakeholders within the public safety arena," Preckwinkle's statement said.

Morton's letter is one of several he and Preckwinkle have sent each other over the ordinance, which garnered national attention when it was approved last September.

Earlier this month, the county board held a four-hour hearing on the ordinance after Sheriff Tom Dart and others expressed concerns that illegal immigrants arrested for murder, assault and other major crimes were being allowed to walk free — some going on to commit more crimes.

In a Jan. 4 letter to Preckwinkle, Morton argued that the ordinance violates federal immigration laws, a position Preckwinkle disputed in her own letter later that month.

Preckwinkle and other supporters of the ordinance say ICE detainers have ensnared people arrested for traffic violations and other minor offenses, as well as those later found to be not guilty of the crime for which they were arrested.

Moreover, they argue, detaining people after they've posted bail constitutes illegal search and seizure without probable cause. They point to a ruling last summer by a federal judge who found ICE detainers are not considered criminal warrants.

"What is troubling to me ... is a policy which treats people differently under the law solely based on their immigration status," Preckwinkle wrote Morton last month.

Preckwinkle's office initially estimated that accommodating ICE detainers costs the county $15 million to $20 million per year. But Dart said during last month's hearing that the cost is more like $250,000 per year.

The county board is expected to hold another hearing next month on amendments to the ordinance proposed by Dart and two county commissioners.

Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, who introduced the law, argued that parts of Morton's proposal would violate a 2006 "sanctuary" resolution that prohibits county employees from asking about a person's immigration status.

"His proposal, as written, is very simplistic and I don't see it as something that is favorable," Garcia, D-Chicago, argued. "It would essentially give ICE agents free rein; it would compromise the separation of ICE and local law enforcement that we've worked so hard to establish in Cook County."

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