Chicago’s undocumented immigrants won new protections last month when the city council revised its “Welcoming City” ordinance to fully ban the Chicago Police Department (CPD) from collaborating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. The effort was spearheaded by Chicago aldermen and democratic socialists Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who has been working to pass the protections since his election in 2015, and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, advancing legislation pushed by groups like Organized Communities Against Deportation and the Chicago Immigration Policy Working Group.
A partial ban on CPD collaboration with ICE was already on the books, but had several key exceptions that exposed many immigrants to being turned over to ICE by CPD and possibly deported. CPD was permitted to collaborate with ICE when dealing with individuals who were in Chicago’s inaccurate and racist gang database, had been convicted of felonies or were in the process of being prosecuted, or had warrants pending against them.
In addition to protecting Chicagoans from deportation, Ramirez-Rosa said that revising the ordinance was important to protect immigrants’ Sixth Amendment due process rights.
“Too often did we see individuals who had been charged or falsely charged with a crime not be able to have their day in court because they were deported,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “Oftentimes they were found guilty in absentia, unable to actually go before the court and present their case. And that further complicated their immigration case, because now they had a conviction.”
Ramirez-Rosa also stressed that many felony offenses do not reflect someone who is an actual danger to their community. “Working on a fake social security number could be treated as a felony, just because you were looking for a job,” he said. “It’s a wide dragnet that that applies to almost all undocumented immigrants who are simply seeking to survive.”
Ramirez-Rosa has a long history fighting for undocumented rights. Between graduating college in 2011 and his election in 2015, he worked in constituent services for Representative Luis Gutiérrez, assisting constituents facing deportation, and worked as a community organizer with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
After being elected, Ramirez-Rosa consulted with undocumented activists and immigrants’ rights organizations to determine how to advance immigrants’ rights at the municipal level. Using his office’s funds, he started a working group led by undocumented Chicagoans that drafted a list of policy recommendations to improve immigrant protections.
Removing the exceptions from Chicago’s sanctuary city policy was the top item on his list. Ramirez-Rosa and other supporters of the change weren’t able to get it passed into law under Mayor Rahm Emanuel — Ramirez-Rosa said that Emanuel refused to work with him on it, even though a majority of the city council supported it and Emanuel said privately that he wasn’t opposed to the policy.
Since it wasn’t moving at city hall, supporters worked on making the ordinance a major issue in the 2019 mayor’s race to replace Emanuel, who chose not to seek reelection after two terms characterized by brutal austerity, constant antagonism of the city’s working class, and a cover-up of the police murder of a black teenager.
“We continued to organize and to escalate,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “Through all of this advocacy work, we really turned this issue of removing the carve outs into a city-wide conversation.”
By the time the two candidates reached the runoff election in 2019, both Lori Lightfoot and her opponent, Toni Preckwinkle, had committed to removing the exceptions to the welcoming ordinance. Lightfoot finally made good on her promise at the beginning of 2021.
Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, also a democratic socialist and a key supporter of the new legislation, has pushed for the legislation since her election in 2019. She has participated in anti-deportation organizing and immigrant mutual aid networks since moving to Chicago from Puerto Rico eleven years ago.
“There’s a lot of work that we did in the ward and in nearby communities to make sure that we were watching out for ICE,” she said. “We did bicycle brigades where people would volunteer on the weekends to go around and keep an eye out for any immigration or federal agencies coming into the community. We did a lot of canvassing to let people know that there was the potential for raids, that Trump was pushing for raids, and that people should not open their doors.”
And in city hall, she advocated for changes to the Welcoming City ordinance. Rodriguez-Sanchez campaigned on passing the ordinance, and said that she saw its passage last month as “the delivery of a promise that was made during campaigning.”
Ramirez-Rosa said that he hopes the new ordinance is the beginning of an expansion of rights and protections for the undocumented. “Divorcing federal immigration from local law enforcement is the bare minimum,” he said. “We can win transformative policies that help to decriminalize our communities. We can envision a different way of approaching public safety.”
Ramirez-Rosa advocates abolishing ICE and said that this ordinance is an important step in that direction. “ICE can only succeed in paralyzing and deporting our communities if local law enforcement assists them. It becomes much, much harder for ICE to do that” without such cooperation, he said. “It’s all part of the same fight.”