Donald Trump uses the phrase “sanctuary city” to disparage American urban centers. In Chicago, we consider the term a badge of honor — though it means we still have important work to do to keep immigrant communities safe.

Jonathan Elbaz
Aug 8 · 6 min read

As part of a collaboration with Temple Sholom’s Makom community group, JCUA’s Emily Isaacson delivered the following remarks about our immigration work within the city of Chicago.

When Donald Trump says he wants to send undocumented immigrants to sanctuary cities across the country, I want to be proud that Chicago is on the list, that Chicago is a “sanctuary city.” I want to be proud of all the ways Chicago is a place of protection for immigrants.

And then I take a step back and I wonder: does this label of “sanctuary city” really embody what it means to be a sanctuary? To me, sanctuary means all Chicago residents have the same rights regardless of their immigration status. It means that undocumented immigrants living in Chicago are protected from violence perpetrated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and other federal agencies. Is Chicago a true sanctuary city when I regularly hear about ICE raids in Chicago’s immigrant communities?

Over the past few months, ICE has threatened to raid many U.S. cities, including Chicago. The raids are expected to target undocumented families in our own community. When I see news articles and social media posts, it makes me angry and sad and moves me to action. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to talk about upcoming ICE raids tonight — that is just the cruel irony of our current political moment. The fear about what might happen in the coming months is a reminder of the urgency of the situation and how we have to do everything we can to fight it.

When I think about what it means that Chicago has been given this “sanctuary city” label, I also think about the monthly interfaith vigil at an ICE deportation transfer station in the Chicago suburb of Broadview, Illinois. I’ve gone to an early Friday morning vigil there at least once a year for the last eight years, bearing witness to Chicago families who line up outside of the facility to say goodbye to family members who will be deported the next day. It makes me wonder, how can we say Chicago is a sanctuary city when this is still happening?

And this whole time, Chicago has had what’s called the Welcoming City Ordinance — Chicago’s “sanctuary city” legislation — on the books. The Welcoming City Ordinance prohibits agencies from inquiring about someone’s immigration status when people are seeking city services. It prevents Chicago police officers from detaining people solely on the belief that they are in the U.S. illegally. And it prevents the Chicago Police Department, CPD, from cooperating with federal agents when they suspect immigration status is the only reason a warrant has been issued.

And yet, Chicago police regularly cooperate with ICE and other federal agencies, leading to ICE check-ins and deportation proceedings for many Chicagoans. So, why is this happening? There are a number of exceptions, carve outs, to the Welcoming City Ordinance, that make it so these rules don’t apply to all undocumented immigrants. The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), as part of the Chicago Immigration Working Group, is fighting to amend the Welcoming City Ordinance to ensure that Chicago lives up to the values of a true sanctuary city.

JCUA members and coalition partners at a rally in support of the Welcoming City Ordinance.

Currently, an undocumented immigrant who has a pending criminal warrant or pending felony charge is excluded from the protections of the Welcoming City Ordinance. We live in a country with a criminal legal system built on the tenet of innocent until proven guilty and it is it seems clear to me that it is unjust for this same protection to exclude undocumented immigrants.

The Welcoming City Ordinance protections are also exempt for those with prior felony convictions. When someone’s past convictions allow for federal immigration enforcement to collaborate with Chicago Police, Chicago is not a true sanctuary. The actions of Chicago police on behalf of ICE keep undocumented immigrants from the safety and protection every Chicagoan deserves. Police resources spent on behalf of ICE take resources away from ensuring the Chicago is a safe city for all of its residents.

Another way law enforcement can interact with someone simply because of their immigration status is if they are listed on what is called the Chicago Gang Database. The database has over 175,000 names in it; it is full of errors and is completely unregulated. There is no process through which someone can find out if they are on this list, and no process to be removed from it. A recent Office of the Inspector General report confirmed what community members have been saying for a long time — the database targets black and brown Chicagoans, is full of misinformation, and is totally unregulated. And to add insult to injury, in response to the Office of Inspector General report, the Chicago Police Department announced they want to create a new gang database to continue to track and target marginalized communities in Chicago.

The information collected through the gang database, full of inaccuracies, can have a huge impact on people’s lives. Take for example Wilmer, an undocumented immigrant who has worked closely with one of JCUA’s community partners. In 2015, police officers added Wilmer to the gang database. Police officers approached Wilmer outside of his neighbor’s house while he was having a conversation with someone that CPD recognized as a gang member. This association was evidence enough to be considered a gang member in the database. Of course, Wilmer had no idea he was added to the gang database after this interaction. Fast forward to March of 2017: ICE officials conducted a warrantless home raid and engaged in excessive use of force on the grounds that Wilmer was a gang member. Because of the carve out in the Welcoming City Ordinance, Wilmer’s inclusion in the gang database alone can be a reason Chicago police can report an immigrant to federal immigration officials. The Chicago Police Department later admitted in a letter to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that Wilmer was erroneously placed in the gang database. Wilmer even appeared in the database in two different places, as being associated with two different competing gangs. This of course doesn’t make sense. And unfortunately, as the Inspector General report confirms, Wilmer’s experience is not a one-off story.

JCUA Avodah Organizer Emily Isaacson

For me, I come to these issues with my Jewish values, identity, and experience. My Judaism grounds me in what I feel — that I want to live in a city that protects and supports its residents regardless of their immigration status. Jewish texts can tell us the same thing, that we have an obligation from our tradition to treat immigrants in our community “like citizens.” We have an obligation not to forget about immigrants and an obligation to welcome them. And I think about Jewish history — the different moments when Jews have been listed and tracked for exclusion. I want to be a part of a Jewish community that acts on our values and fights to ensure that our city is one that we can be proud of.

JCUA, as part of two different coalitions, are working to pass two ordinances, pieces of legislation, in City Council. We are working to amend the Welcoming City Ordinance and to halt the creation of a new gang database as proposed by CPD until harm has been addressed. Lori Lightfoot, our new mayor, has committed to passing the Welcoming City Ordinance in her first 100 days in office which gives us hope that after years of organizing, Chicago will have a stronger Welcoming City Ordinance. But we still have to fight to ensure that all the protection Chicagoans deserve are included in this new ordinance and that 26 city council people, alderman, support it after its introduction to City Council.

For important legislation to move forward our alderman need to hear from us that amending the Welcoming City Ordinance is a priority! Call your alderman and ask them to support the Chicago Immigration Working Group’s amendments to the Welcoming City Ordinance. This is one crucial step towards Chicago living up to its values as a place that is welcoming to and protective of immigrant communities.

A special thanks to Rabbi Scott Gellman and Emma Harmon for helping make the collaboration between Makom and JCUA possible.

Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

JCUA is the Jewish voice for social justice in Chicago.

Jonathan Elbaz

Written by

JCUA Communications Manager

Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

JCUA is the Jewish voice for social justice in Chicago.

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