While immigrant-friendly cities states have spent the last year pushing back against President Donald Trump and his anti-immigration policies, a group of activists in Chicago took a different tack this week. They went after Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
On Tuesday, protesters with Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD) and Black Youth Project 100 briefly blocked an intersection in downtown Chicago. Protesters erected an art installation calling out the city’s gang database and Emanuel’s support for the construction of a multi-million dollar police-training facility. They also held aloft a sign that read: “RAHM’s CHICAGO: SANCTUARY FOR POLICE NOT IMMIGRANTS.”
The mayor, they said, talks a good talk about immigrants, but has failed to back policies that protect the city’s most vulnerable undocumented immigrants.
“The mayor cannot continue to use these pro-immigrant tactics,” while failing to back more inclusive policies, said Reyna Wences, an organizer with OCAD.
The “pro-immigrant tactics” Wences referred to are recent, and ostensibly immigrant-friendly, wins for the city. On Wednesday, Chicago city council took up and approved a resolution backed by Emanuel that called for the creation of a Dreamers Bill of Rights at the state level. The resolution asks that, in the wake of the Trump administration’s cancellation of DACA, Illinois does “all it can to remain a welcoming place for the more than 40,000 DACA youth that live, work, and study” in the state.” DACA benefits undocumented young people, offering them short-term immigration protections and work permits for two-year stints, and is in the midst of a phase out.
The resolution calls for the creation of a state legal defense fund to provide undocumented immigrants, who have no right to an attorney in immigration court, access to counsel, and appeals to the state to allow undocumented immigrants the right to access professional certification and licenses. It also urges Illinois to limit its participation with ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The resolution, Emanuel has acknowledged, is a symbolic one.
But it’s not just flowery resolutions. Chicago has been doing more to burnish its reputation as an inclusive sanctuary city. Last month a federal judge sided with Chicago, which sued the federal government over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ threats to punish cities that tried to limit their law enforcement agencies’ participation with federal immigration authorities. Sessions’ scheme involved updating federal rules to withhold grant money from localities that refused to give federal immigration authorities total access to their police stations and to hold on to potential immigration violators for ICE. Chicago, a judge ruled, could prevail in arguing that the city would face “irreparable harm” if it overhauled its city policies to satisfy the Trump administration’s demands.
In the ongoing saga of blue states and sanctuary cities taking on the Trump administration, this moment was a victory for those who care about immigrants, and Emanuel claimed it. “It’s an assertion of our most fundamental American values,” Emanuel said in a press conference arranged shortly after the decision was released. “And it’s an unambiguous, clear rejection of the false choice that the Trump Justice Department wanted Chicago to make between our values, our principles, and our priorities,” he said.
To that, Wences, the organizer with OCAD, has a response: “If the mayor really wants this to be a sanctuary city, he would remove carve-outs.”
Currently, the city permits its police officers to cooperate with federal immigration authorities’ requests to detain a person on their behalf if someone falls into one of four categories: if a person is in the city’s gang database, has an outstanding criminal warrant, is convicted of a felony, or has an open felony case.
The city’s gang database is notoriously error ridden, Wences and other critics point out. A person can be added to the gang database without ever having been convicted of a crime and without any notice, let alone a chance to fight this label. And because black and Latino and other people of color are more likely to be harassed and picked up by the police, immigrants of color are also more likely to be funneled into the deportation system via these carve-outs. “Chicago cannot be a sanctuary city while these carve-outs continue to exist,” Wences said.
OCAD is not alone. On Wednesday, the Chicago Immigration Policy Working Group, a coalition backed by Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and made up of civil and immigrant rights organizations and criminal justice reform groups, called on Emanuel to face the issue.
“This resolution misses an opportunity to offer real protection for these and all other immigrants,” read a statement that the coalition released Wednesday afternoon. “We urge the Mayor and City Council to…eliminate all immigration detainers and review the Chicago Gang Database.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
But the overall fight illuminates one of the central sticking points, and vulnerabilities, about organizing around sanctuary city policies right now. There is no official classification or even uniform definition of what makes a sanctuary city. Therefore, it’s easy to boast that you run a sanctuary city. It’s much murkier to figure out if your city is actually living up to its pro-immigrant ideals.
The irony of Chicago getting so much shine for squaring off against the Trump administration in this national sanctuary city fight is that Chicago and Trump agree on plenty when it comes to those who are criminalized by police. Trump has singled out immigrant gang members as those who are the most dangerous threats to the country, and has used “bloodthirsty” immigrant gang members as a primary rationale for ramping up his deportation and enforcement regime. Trump is uniquely obsessed with gang members, who he called “animals” who “slice and dice” young, beautiful girls. His remarks, made this summer, came in just one of many dark speeches Trump has given over the last year and a half dedicated to immigrant gangs. He’s repeatedly used gruesome imagery to call on Congress to set aside more money for immigration agents, enforcement, and targeted crackdowns on gang members. In places like Chicago, it’s police officers who determine, create, and manage the lists of those who are labeled gang members.
And because of Chicago’s sanctuary city carve-outs and how Chicago’s gang database works, a person can be handed off to immigration authorities without ever having been convicted of a crime.
“The way that Trump has created this enemy connects with how local law enforcement runs,” said Tania Unzueta, policy director with Mijente, a Latinx organizing group. Going after a Democratic mayor in a blue state, even one who’s worked hard at his immigrant-friendly rhetoric like Emanuel, is as important as going after Trump, Unzueta argued.“What we’re asking is that [Emanuel] go beyond these superficial policies he’s put out so far.”