The Chicagoist will be launching later but in the meantime please enjoy our archives.

ICE Arrest Of Man In CPD Gang Database Shows Disturbing Loophole For 'Sanctuary City'

By Stephen Gossett in News on May 2, 2017 8:12PM

Getty Images / Photo: John Moore

In the semi-recurrent face-off between Chicago and the White House, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has affirmed and reaffirmed Chicago as a sanctuary city. Despite threats by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to strip millions in law-enforcement funds from Chicago if the city limits cooperation of local police with federal immigration, Emanuel publicly stands athwart the administration. It's good PR for the mayor, but at the same time, activists maintain that those "sanctuary" protections only extend so far. The recent case of Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez is perhaps most illustrative of those built-in limits.

Catalan-Ramirez is suing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Chicago Police Department after he was detained by ICE when, according to his lawsuit, the feds accessed his information via CPD's gang database—which has long been criticized by civil-liberties advocates as overly broad in its sweep. The city explicitly makes room for that gang database carve-out, which effectively creates at least one pathway by which locals and feds can cooperate on immigration detention.

Catalan-Ramirez, a father of a three-year-old citizen, says he is not a gang member and has never been one. But in March, he was targeted in his Back of the Yards home by six ICE agents, who he says shoved him to floor, inflaming injuries that he suffered in a January drive-by shooting, of which he was an innocent bystander, according to family. He suffered skull fractures and serious brain trauma in the January shooting.

Celene Adame addresses demonstrators at a May Day rally (Photo: OCAD)
“I saw the immigration agents slam my husband to the floor while we told them he was injured, but they still hurt him and took him to detention,” Celene Adame, Catalan-Ramirez's wife, in a statement. “There needs to be consequences for everyone responsible for hurting our family, for my husband, and so that it doesn’t happen to others."

Of course, the entire raid seemingly hinged on Catalan-Ramirez's (unwarranted, he insists) inclusion in the police department's gang database. Alan Mills, Executive Director at Uptown Peoples Law Center, agrees with the contention that the database is too far-reaching. The civil-rights attorney argues that not only should people in the database not have their information made available to ICE, but the "largely fawed" index should be "eliminated altogether," at least as is.

"You can get listed on [the database] without any sort of due process, without any kind of notice," Mills said. "You probably won't even know you're listed on it unless you're picked up."

Mills cited the problematic pattern of parolees being arrested for essentially just coming into contact with someone who is believed to be a member of a gang. (See the recent Sun-Times watchdog report "Even being seen with gang member sends 1,000s to jail.")

"Now we're going one step further and doing the same thing with ICE—letting ICE come in and snatch people up with no due process, with no understanding of why they're there," said Mills.

Mark Fleming, of National Immigrant Justice Center, compared the database to the TSA's oft-criticized no-fly list when speaking with the Reader earlier this year. Mills agrees with the parallel. "People are added based on God only knows what information, and have no way to challenge it," he said.

How CPD identifies and designates someone a gang member is not always ideal, either, with determinations sometimes made on the basis of an outside individual's word or based on, in part, a person's dress, tattoos or other markings.

Sophie Vodvarka, communications coordinator of the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant & Refugee Rights, agreed that such carve-outs are "problematic." The ICIRR and other member organizations are working with the City Council "to create better ordinances, 'Welcoming City ordinances' to create secure communities," she added via email.

A new measure that would strengthen that ordinance to shore up carve-outs, including the gang database, does appear to have significant political will behind it. The measure, which was introduced a few months ago, is co-sponsors by 28 aldermen—which means it could all hinge on how Emanuel moves. Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward) told Chicagoist that he's had "good" conversations with the mayor's office and "hopes to see traction within the next month or so."

His constituents consistently voice the "need to completely reform our broken criminal justice," he said, including doing away with the gang database. Even though Chicago officially did away with stop and frisk, the database "remains in many ways derivative" of the controversial method, Rosa said. "When police filled out contact cards, there was often no real information as to why [a person was labeled a gang member]," Ramirez-Rosa said.

We'll have to wait and see if Catalan-Ramirez's challenge moves the dial and how much. Meanwhile, activists, including those at Monday's massive May Day demonstrations, are geared for the challenge

Xanat Sobrevilla, an organizer with Organized Communities Against Deportation, said in a statement: "If the City of Chicago truly wants to be a sanctuary city where immigrants can seek safe refuge, it should stop sharing its Gang Database with ICE and inform ICE the database is rife with inaccuracies and is not a legitimate law enforcement tool."

This post has been updated.