Police, Legal Officials Discuss Local Enforcement Role In Immigration Issues

Apr 14, 2017

Immigration in the U.S. remains a hot topic, and the controversy surrounding it only keeps evolving. That comes after a few executive orders from President Donald Trump that give local law enforcement the ability to detain undocumented immigrants.

Credit Richard Masoner/Cyclelicious / "U.S. Mexico border" (CC V. 2.0)

The Department of Homeland Security released memos in February regarding President Trump’s executive orders. According to those memos, those orders give the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement the ability to give local law enforcement power to detain “criminal aliens” for possible deportation. Late last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a speech that local law enforcement could lose federal funding if they do not comply with those new federal regulations.

“You know, I’ve taken an oath of office here to uphold the constitution of the State of Illinois and the constitution of the United States, and I truly believe that’s what we have to do,” Whiteside County Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said. “We have illegal immigrants here who are criminals that need to be deported, and if there are detainers or warrants on these people from being in our custody on criminal charges, that we’re going to honor those.”

Wilhelmi also mentioned a state Senate bill amendment by Senator John Cullerton that was postponed last week. It says that local law enforcement cannot detain anyone based on an immigration detainer or a warrant after the person in question is eligible to be released from custody – whether that means that person posted bond or has served the entire sentence, if charges against that person were dropped or dismissed, or if that person has been acquitted of all criminal charges.

Wilhelmi says he disagrees with the purpose of the bill.

“The state of Illinois – we are in dire straits as it is when it comes to funding because of the powers that be have basically almost ruined the state financially,” Wilhelmi said. “And so, to put something out there, another law that would limit us or restrict us from doing our job and cost federal funding, I think that’s like shooting yourself in the foot. I think it’s very foolish of our leaders of this state that they are going to try to do this, and it doesn’t make sense to me.” 

Wilhelmi says he has no problem with immigrants who go through the proper legal process for citizenship and want to be constructive members of society, but he says those who are criminals are costing the rest of the community money and costing peoples’ lives.

“Not every immigrant is a criminal – don’t get me wrong – but the ones that are need to be taken care of and be deported out of this country,” Wilhelmi said.

DeKalb County Sheriff Roger Scott shares the same sentiment as Wilhelmi, in the sense that law enforcement would have to comply with what federal laws are put in place regardless, as long as those federal laws are deemed constitutional.

Scott says the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office only has to interact with ICE about two or three times a month, and they cooperate with them just as they would work with any federal agency – like the FBI or the DEA. So Scott says immigrant detention is not necessarily a high-volume situation for the office.

“We do not target anyone but, as they come across our path in the normal course of business, we will certainly take whatever enforcement action is necessary,” Scott said. “Immigration is not a prime target for our office, but if they come through our jail and they’re wanted by ICE or would be detained by ICE, we’re going to cooperate with that.”

Rockford Police Chief Dan O’Shea says the city’s policy is to never ask victims or suspects of crimes about immigration status, nor do they check.

“The only time the Rockford Police Department would be involved in any type of immigration – whether they’re documented or undocumented – would be after we arrest someone, they’re transported to the county jail, and the county jail would put their fingerprints through the biometric scan that sends notification to ICE, and then ICE would deal with the county sheriff from that point going forward if they had an immigration detainer request, or immigration issues, with that individual,” O’Shea said. “The city police department would not be involved in that.”

Nor, O’Shea says, does Rockford have any 287-G officers – or local immigration law enforcement that have similar powers as ICE. He says the department doesn’t have plans to participate in the program in the future.

However, O’Shea says, the Rockford Police Department is still obligated to follow federal or state law, whatever that may mean.

“The Chief says to us, ‘Tell people pay their traffic fines! If you need to appear in court, if it’s must-appear, then appear in court,’” Linda Zuba, who is a Rockford attorney, said.

Zuba’s legal specialization is not immigration, nor does she represent anyone in those types of cases, but she says the issue hits close to home for her and she helps in community civil rights seminars that give undocumented immigrants general information for topics like guardianship or interacting with police. 

“The problem is, now people are afraid to appear in court, because they’re afraid that, once they walk into the courthouse and, you know, they’re hearing stories from across the country that if they go into court, that they may be detained by authorities,” Zuba said. “So, you know, people are afraid.”

And, Zuba says, that kind of fear is there for undocumented immigrants who might have traffic violations. She says she knows of cases where people have been detained at the request of ICE because they don’t pay for a traffic ticket because they’re afraid to appear in court.

Zuba says legal officials are concerned about the ambiguity of current immigration mandates – one part being a lack of consistent terminology. For example, she says, a detainer is not the same as a warrant, and that the terms “detainers” and “ICE holds” seem to be used interchangeably.

Zuba also says the constitutionality of these executive orders for police to detain people is questionable, referring to previous court decisions:

“And they ruled that detainers on individuals in local custody generally exceed the limited, warrantless authority that ICE has,” Zuba said. “So, if ICE – or the Immigration Customs and Enforcement – if they want someone to be detained for a period of time in which they should’ve been released, then they should have a warrant.”

Winnebago County Sheriff Gary Caruana says the last thing he wants is for people to be afraid to seek police help, or that the police will question their immigration status, for situations like domestic violence. As Chief O’Shea mentioned, Caruana says that type of information is not flagged locally.

“So we want to make sure that people, if they need the police – and again, I can’t stress the domestic violence issue a lot, because that is a violent crime – we want to make sure that they call and that we take care of the issue there and not worry about documented or not documented, because we’re not asking,” Caruana said. “None of these law enforcement agencies are asking.”

Zuba says that she, along with immigrant lawyers in the area, have been attending meetings with local law enforcement solely regarding immigration to keep up communication for laws that she says keep on evolving.