The Chicago City Council passed an ordinance March 29 that forbids police and other city employees from participating in the witch-hunt against undocumented immigrants that has been whipped up by the Republican far right.

Under the Sensenbrenner bill, HR 4437, passed in the federal House of Representatives on Dec. 16, and some other bills under consideration, to be in this country without authorization would be come a felony, and this would automatically allow state and local police to investigate or arrest a person.
These bills contain further language encouraging this and providing training for police in immigration enforcement.

In many towns and counties it is a regular practice for police to question people they have stopped, even for minor infractions, about their immigration status, and to deliver them to federal immigration authorities if they turn out to be undocumented.

Another bill, the CLEAR Act, would block certain federal funds from states and municipalities that don’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. And the REAL-ID act, passed and signed by President Bush last year, forces state departments of motor vehicles to authenticate documents presented by persons soliciting driver’s licenses for authenticity.

There is a lot of fear that such laws could lead, not only to suffering on the part of undocumented immigrants, but also to racial profiling and harassment of U.S. citizens and foreign visa holders who a policeman merely sees as appearing “foreign.” Undocumented immigrants who have reason to fear that their talking to police will lead to their arrest and deportation are also much less likely to cooperate with law enforcement in reporting crimes or giving evidence.

So the Chicago city ordinance, passed with little opposition two weeks after at least 300,000 people had marched for immigrants’ rights in the streets of the city, can be seen as an act of defiance against the anti-immigrant movement’s efforts to recruit police into their efforts.

According to Alderman Ed Burke, who is considered the “historian” of the Chicago City Council, this ordinance is nothing new. In 1850, Mayor James Curtis issued an executive order forbidding Chicago police from cooperating the federal Fugitive Slave Act which required authorities in Northern states which had abolished slavery to capture and return to their “owners” any escaped slaves found in their territories.

In 1985, Mayor Harold Washington issued another executive order, this one forbidding Chicago police and other officials from cooperating with the then INS in immigration enforcement actions. Washington did this partly because the Latino community asked him to. He had criticized federal authorities for questioning immigrants in Chicago who asked for city services.

Perhaps as revenge for the criticism, INS agents then stopped a high city official, Maria Cerda, in the hall outside her office and threatened to arrest her if she did not show them proof of U.S. citizenship. Cerda, then the head of the city’s office of job training, happened to be Puerto Rican and therefore a U.S. citizen from birth, and the indignation resulting from the agents’ action helped to unite the Mexican and Puerto Rican communities in the city. Alderman Billy Ocasio, who introduced the 2006 ordinance, is also Puerto Rican.

When Mayor Washington died in November 1987, Latinos and allies convinced his successors, Eugene Sawyer and Richard M. Daley, to keep the order in force. Over the years there has been slippage in enforcement, with many stories of Chicago police harassing immigrants by demanding to see their green cards. But the action by the City Council is a big step forward because a city ordinance has more teeth than an executive order.

Chicago is not the only city in the United States that has taken an official position in opposition to police enforcement of immigration laws. Such “sanctuary cities” include Portland, Ore., Denver, Colo., and Austin and Houston, Texas, to name a few. A 1996 federal law gives city employees who want to denounce possibly undocumented people to the federal government the right to do so in spite of city policies. There have been a number of lawsuits by anti-immigrant groups to try to end the sanctuary city movement; these have had mixed success.