Victims of the “poli-migra”

July 24, 2008

Orlando Sepúlveda explains how Chicago's local law enforcement is collaborating with federal immigration authorities in violation of city policy--and how activists are challenging the "poli-migra."

JOSÉ TORRES, a Northeastern Illinois University business student, was stopped for speeding June 11. He was arrested for driving without a license or insurance, and a DUI.

His sister Erika, a prospective high school math teacher, said that the family attempted to pay the bail, set at $2,000, but officials at Cook County Jail only gave them excuses about why they couldn't accept it.

In a similar case in May, a 26-year-old restaurant worker, Jacobo Ruiz, was coming back from his job and stopped to fill up his gas tank. He was arrested by a Chicago police officer for driving without a license. Ruiz had no police record.

For most drivers, this would have probably ended with a ticket and a court date. But the police "suspected" that Ruiz was an "illegal," so he was arrested, charged and put in Cook County Jail.

The next day, when Ruiz's wife Severa offered to pay his bail of $1,500, she was told that the jail had received an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) order requiring that Ruiz be detained for another two days. But the 48-hour period multiplied many times over. After five months of uncertainty, ICE came for Ruiz, and he now faces deportation. His current bail is an unattainable $10,000.

For his part, the arrested business student, José Torres decided that raising bail would be too hard on his family. He's the primary caregiver of his child and biggest provider of income for his family. So he decided to submit to the court, receive a sentence, pay a fine and take his chances about being turned over to ICE.

But last week, a judge, citing a backlog, indefinitely postponed José's court date. He was relocated from Cook County Jail to a detention center in the Chicago suburb of Skokie.

Jacobo's and José's relatives are only some of the 60 families that came to Chicago's Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission during the last few months, seeking help. Jacobo heard about the mission when he saw the church's priest, Father José Landaverde, on television. José's sister was referred by lawyers and activist groups. In some cases, Chicago aldermen's offices sent immigrants to the mission.

In response to the requests for help, Landaverde began rounding up money to pay for bail. This inspired a handful of church members and activists from Chicago's March 10 Movement, who were instrumental in organizing recent big immigrant rights demonstrations in the city, to document individual cases, organize visits from lawyers to the church, hold fundraisers and organize a few successful political events.

The mission has become the aid of last resort for families threatened by what activists call "poli-migra"--that is, the network of Chicago cops and Cook County sheriff's deputies working with ICE and using their authority to victimize undocumented workers and the families they sustain.

"We have proof now," said Father Landaverde in a press release, "that the Chicago Police Department is asking for papers and submitting people to immigration authorities in violation of Mayor Harold Washington's I-85 executive order and the city of Chicago's Sanctuary Resolution from 2007 forbidding that practice."

At a press conference, Landaverde and others presented paperwork, signed by arresting officers of the Chicago Police Department, requesting immigration holds for several detainees. That was compelling enough to move several Latino aldermen to initiate hearings into the allegations that the cops are working with ICE in violation of city law--though dates have not been given for the hearings.

Jorge Mujica of the March 10 Movement explained that the I-85 executive order was issued to prevent racial profiling by Chicago police. "How can a police officer perform immigration enforcement without racially profiling people?" Mujica said. "Is the immigration status of every driver going to be suspected 'unauthorized' just because he's driving without a license?"

THE MISSION has been trying to deal with the complexity of the crisis. On one hand, the church is trying to ease the crisis for the families, and on the other, it is seeking legal and political means to free the families' breadwinners. But that requires overcoming a mountain of obstacles from the law enforcement bureaucracy, as well as plain racism.

But these struggles take time. And after months of hardship, family arrangements are starting to break down.

One family seeking help from the mission was illegally evicted, yet the CPD did nothing but defend the landlady involved. Some families have had to move to cheaper, rundown places, and many have been forced to go to food banks.

"This is destroying the families," said Jesús Vargas of the March 10 Movement, who is collaborating with the mission. "Bails can jump up to $17,000, and just now, María called to tell me that she had been evicted and couldn't get into her apartment to get her stuff," he said describing one of the cases he's working on.

Marilú Vargas, recently named administrator of the mission, explains, "Not having the money for bail is only half of the problem. When we have the money, we go to pay the bail, and they [at Cook County Jail] don't accept it. We had to try with a very aggressive lawyer to make the jail accept the bail for one of the cases. Predictably, they put a 48-hour immigration "hold" on him. We thought we had a chance that ICE wouldn't appear, but [jail authorities] made sure that ICE came very quickly."

Activists in the mission thought they might be able to pressure jail officials to accept bail money, because that tactic has worked in some places. In Irving, Texas, ICE has had to ask local law enforcement to stop the practice of applying the Criminal Alien Program to undocumented immigrants who committed minor offenses.

But in Chicago, the poli-migra is in a hunting mood. "Does this mean that anyone," asked Jesús Vargas, "driving home from work, 'suspected' to be undocumented could be stopped by the police, taken in and detained for periods of 48 hours by Cook County, or until ICE decides the time to take him away?"

The threat of the poli-migra is much bigger than what the mission and volunteer activists can handle. So they are reaching out.

Activists recently held a press conference at Alderman Billy Ocasio's office, gave his staff a copy of the cases they've documented and asked when the City Council would hold hearings on the issue. Ocasio was absent, but his staff promised hearings would begin August 5.

But the activists aren't waiting. They're calling all pro-immigrant rights and antiracist groups to a meeting at the end of July at the mission to collaborate in organizing their side for the city council hearings.

As Jorge Mujica spelled out the activists' demands: "We want the Chicago Police Department to stop using racial profiling, we want Resolution I-85 to include ways to punish this practice, and we want the name of the officers involved in each case."

Raquel Vega contributed to this article.

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