By Sean Powers /Illinois Public Media — Angelina Lopez, 47, is a single mother in central Illinois who came into the U.S. illegally 10 years ago.
Lopez, who has three grown children, lives in fear because she faces deportation after an arrest in McLean County last year.
Lopez is like thousands of Latinos in Illinois who have been stopped by police for traffic violations and turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE) authorities as a part of a controversial federal program.
Nearly the entire country is now enrolled in the program, known as “Secure Communities”. McLeanCounty is not one of the counties, but the sheriff’s office’s willingness to contact immigration officials about non-citizen arrests, and honor the ICE “holds” is easily the equivalent of being in the program.
Under the program’s practices, local law enforcement agencies hold non-citizen prisoners on behalf of federal immigration officials. That gives immigration officials time to decide if a prisoner should be transferred to a detention facility and possibly deported.
The program is designed to help crack down on hardened criminals and get them out of the U.S.
In Lopez’s case, she said was leaving a movie theatre in Bloomington where she worked as a custodian. Lopez was behind the wheel of her car when she noticed a patrol car and said she was careful not to give the police any reason to stop her.
But as soon as she pulled out of the parking lot, she said she was stopped and asked for her driver’s license, which she did not have.
“I think that they asked for my identification and my license, they asked if I was carrying drugs in the trunk,” Lopez said through a translator in a recent interview. “I said ‘no, you can check.’ It was a question that makes it seem like I’m a drug trafficker or like I sell drugs or something.”
Lopez, who has no major criminal arrests, was charged with several traffic violations, including driving without a license and operating an uninsured vehicle.
She then spent three weeks in three different detention facilities before she was released from one in Chicago and reunited with her children.
Deportations sharply rise
Deportation cases for undocumented immigrants have been on a sharp rise in Illinois and many people are pointing to the Secure Communities program as the cause.
The program was established in 2008 with the intent of removing undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes or pose threats to national security. Champaign County is one of 26 Illinois counties officially participating in it.
Over the past five years, deportation cases have increased more than 56 percent in Illinois, with most of them against Mexican nationals.
Furthermore, Illinois ranks fourth in the amount of pending immigration cases this year, reflecting a national trend in which Immigration Court cases are declining while Court backlog and actual deportations are climbing.
As of August, more than 7,000 deportation cases for immigration causes have been filed – this is a big increase from 2005, when 71 percent of the nearly 3,500 deportation cases in Illinois were for undocumented immigrants, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
But after initially opting into the program, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn last year said the state would no longer participate because it detained too many people and strained police-community relationships.
Other Illinois counties that have cooperated with ICE detainer requests, like Cook and Champaign, have also taken a step back after voicing similar concerns. Yet, all states are expected to participate in the program by the end of 2013, according to ICE.
Secure Communities’ effect in rural communities.
Rural communities down state tend to have more conservative attitudes toward immigration, said Jesse Hoyt, a community organizer with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
“As a result, we’ve seen programs like Secure Communities kind of have a devastating effect on the undocumented communities and the families that have kind of mixed status,” said Hoyt. “Often times you have kids who are citizens but their parents are undocumented, so you’ll find actual families that have been split up because one of their family members are deported.”
In Champaign County, where more than 5 percent of residents are Hispanic, there have been complaints of racial profiling and wrongful arrests under Secure Communities.
The CU Immigration Forum issued a report last year that argued that the 48-hour limit on ICE was not being uniformly enforced, that the program wastes tax dollars, that it encourages racial profiling, that it utilizes capacity at the county jail, and that it diverts law enforcement from fighting actual crime.
McClean County courtesy “holds”
The McLean County sheriff’s office said as a courtesy it contacts ICE about non-citizen arrests and holds an arrestee in the county jail for up to 48 hours on behalf of ICE, not including weekends and holidays. ICE can then determine if that person is eligible for deportation based on the severity of their crimes, criminal history, and other repeated violations of immigration law.
“It’s not as if we’re going out and making traffic stops solely for the purpose of checking the driver’s papers,” Sheriff Mike Emery said. “We don’t engage in those types of practices. When we get them at the county jail, it’s because they have violated state law, and we treat all cases the same.”
From the beginning of July 2011 through the start of this September, there were roughly 180 arrests in McLean County in which people were held in the local jail on behalf of ICE. They were held for immigration violations, misdemeanors, felonies, DUI’s or less severe crimes, like traffic violations.
Nearly 40 percent of those arrested, like Lopez, only had traffic violations on their record at the time of their arrest. Almost one in five had fewer than four traffic counts, according to an analysis of arrest data provided by the McLean County Sheriff’s Office.
Pulled over six times
Since 2004, Lopez has been pulled over six times for a total of 17 traffic violations but she is less likely to be deported than someone with felonies and misdemeanors.
On the other hand, she is more likely to be removed from the country than someone with only a couple of traffic offenses. After being arrested last fall, she said she was held in the McLean County jail for two days before being transferred to the Jefferson County Justice Center in Mt. Vernon, one of the detention facilities that contracts with ICE.
Lopez said she was transported there in a van with about 20 other people, who were handcuffed ands hackled at the waist.
“Along the way, they were smoking. They were driving excessively fast. They turned the radio volume up very high,” she said. “Someone needed to use the restroom…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 said 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.
“It was something that I didn’t ever imagine,” she said. “I thought there would be time to go back to my daughters. So many thoughts run through one’s mind because I didn’t imagine it would be this way- that I wouldn’t be able to see them. And when I saw them finally, it was something really beautiful.”
Lopez has an immigration hearing in the spring where she will likely find out if she will be deported.
Separation from families
Bloomington-Normal immigration activist Sonny Garcia said he has heard of other cases where people have been separated from their families for an extended period after being arrested for traffic offenses.
Garcia said holding non-citizens at the request of immigration officials can help make communities safer, but Garcia aid Sheriff Emery’s department needs to use more discretion when contacting ICE.
“We have no issue with him detaining hardened criminals or people that have felonies,” Garcia said. “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 took office in 2006, and last year, changed a policy that had been on the books during his predecessor’s time in office.
It 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,” Emery said. “So to make it a non-discriminatory policy, we changed it to all non-U.S born citizens the staff will contact ICE for identification and verification.”
Illinois State Rep. Toni Berrios (D-Chicago) worries too many people are being detained in communities that honor ICE holds.
She said that is creating distrust between immigrant communities and the police.
Berrios sponsored legislation to put a halt to Secure Communities in Illinois so that it can be further studied. She said she does not believe the practice makes communities any safer.
“You know, out on the street, these people see their relatives being deported or their friends being deported,” he said. “They seem to think that Secure Communities has become the bad guy. Well, it’s not. It’s an immigration system that’s broken.”
ICE director John Morton said in a congressional hearing earlier this year that his agency has made strides to improve Secure Communities by encouraging more discretion about traffic arrests, and setting up a 24-hour hotline for people who believe they were wrongfully detained or held too long.
“We have a limited number of detention beds, and so the question is do we focus our resources on someone who just came across the border two years ago, as opposed to someone who came across 10 years ago, now has two United States citizen children,” Morton said. “If I have to pick between putting a criminal in detention or somebody who’s been here for a very long time, I’m going to pick the criminal every time.”— Azra Halilovic contributed to this report