Driving while Latino

In 44 communities across the six-county Chicago area, the share of Latino drivers in traffic stops was more than 10 percentage points higher than their portion of the driving-age population. Charles Forsyth, chief of the Hometown Police Department, said large numbers of drive-through traffic skew the stop figures in his community.

Photo by Joe Gallo

In 44 communities across the six-county Chicago area, the share of Latino drivers in traffic stops was more than 10 percentage points higher than their portion of the driving-age population. Charles Forsyth, chief of the Hometown Police Department, said large numbers of drive-through traffic skew the stop figures in his community.

In the summer, Osman Maldonado drove less than a mile from his house to a gas station near a busy intersection in northwest suburban Crystal Lake for cigarettes. He spotted a McHenry County Sheriff’s deputy parked in the lot of an adjacent boutique. The deputy walked up to the Honduran immigrant’s window and asked for his driver’s license and registration. Then he examined Maldonado’s wallet.

Inside, the deputy found a fake green card. He arrested the Honduran immigrant and booked him on a felony charge of possessing fraudulent documents. A $25,000 bond was assigned.

Maldonado, who arrived in Chicago in 2003 and had been earning up to $275 a week as a machine operator at a tool storage manufacturing company, spent the next 30 days in jail. He pleaded guilty to a downgraded misdemeanor for the fake documents, with time already served in jail as his sentence.

This package of stories on racial profiling and its impact on immigration matters was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of The Chicago Reporter.

But his legal nightmare didn’t end there. On the day of his release, the sheriff’s office transported him to a hearing in immigration court. With his petition for asylum already denied, the 25-year-old father of two is facing deportation–” with an electronic monitoring device now strapped to his right ankle.

Maldonado said he’s startled to find himself in this predicament–”out of something as routine as a traffic stop. “My dream was just to work and get ahead,” he said.

Maldonado’s experience is familiar to many Latinos living in the six-county Chicago area. In many communities with a recent surge in immigrant population, Latino drivers are being stopped at a higher rate by the police than their share of the driving-age population, and they are more likely to have their cars searched than their white counterparts, shows a Chicago Reporter analysis of 2007 traffic stop data collected by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Given the increasingly tangled relationship between local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, these traffic stops, as in Maldonado’s case, can have far-reaching consequences for drivers whose immigration status is now being scrutinized more closely.

The Reporter examined the transportation department’s data, which compile records collected from law enforcement agencies throughout the state, and found that 44 out of more than 200 communities in the six-county Chicago area recorded a disparity of at least 10 percentage points when the share of Latino drivers stopped is compared to their size in the driving-age population.

The analysis does not include communities that, according to the 2000 Census, had fewer than 2,500 residents, nor does it include those that recorded less than 200 traffic stops involving Latino drivers or 1,000 overall stops.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

West suburban Stickney recorded the highest disparity, with Latinos involved in 52 percent of all traffic stops in the village though they made up only 19 percent of its driving-age population. West suburban Aurora, the most populous of the 44 communities, had a disparity of about 13 percentage points. In all, nine communities, including Stickney, posted disparities of more than 20 percentage points.

The Reporter’s analysis also found that Latino drivers were asked for permission to search their cars at a higher rate in 25 out of the 44 communities than white counterparts–”despite the fact that Latinos were less likely to be found in possession of contraband.

The 44 communities are clustered mainly in Lake and Kane counties, along with several communities on the outskirts of Chicago in Cook County, like Berwyn and Stickney. Ten of the communities are located next to the large communities with more than 20,000 foreign-born population–”Aurora, Cicero, Elgin, Skokie and Waukegan.

Many of the 44 communities had a sizable increase in their foreign-born population since 1990. According to the census, 23 out of the 44 communities saw their foreign-born population double between 1990 and 2000. During the same period, by comparison, the foreign-born population doubled in 36 percent of communities in the rest of the sixcounty area.

West suburban Plainfield, which had a 11.9 percent disparity in Latino traffic stops, saw the biggest increase in its foreign-born population between 1990 and 2000–”a 779 percent growth.

Immigrant advocates point out that the traffic stop disparities come at a time when there are increasing ties between local communities and the immigration agency, and this means that more deportations and other immigration issues have been originating from routine traffic stops.

Several suburban authorities now have arrangements with the immigration agency to house immigrant detainees and have also asked to participate in the agency’s ACCESS program, which offers various ways to address criminal immigrants.

The immigration agency has also been lodging what’s called “detainers,” which put immigrants under its custody for processing of immigration offenses, even after criminal charges are thrown out.

Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said this blending of duties between federal immigration and local law enforcement efforts is appalling. “State and local law governments collaborating with the federal government [in immigration matters] is very troubling,” Schwartz said. “It leads directly to racial profiling. We think it drives a wedge between communities. It’s a horrible social policy.”

But police officials contacted for this story said they didn’t believe racial profiling was being practiced by officers in their departments.

Some maintained that the Reporter’s finding was misleading because the 2000 Census, which offers the latest official statistics available for driving-age population, was used in analyzing 2007 traffic stop data. By 2007, they said, the population of their communities had far surpassed that from 2000.

For example, west suburban Montgomery, which had a disparity of about 26 percent in traffic stop figures, saw its population grow from about 5,500 in 2000 to 17,000 last year, according to a special census conducted in May 2008.

Northwest suburban Round Lake, which posted a 15 percent disparity in traffic stop numbers, saw a similar increase in its population, from less than 6,000 in 2000 to nearly 17,000 in 2007, according the census bureau’s American Community Survey, which is conducted annually for selected communities nationwide.

But no officials–”in Montgomery, Round Lake or elsewhere–” could provide any evidence that the proportion of Latinos among driving-age population in their communities was any higher in 2007 than it was in 2000.

Others argued that the traffic stop disparities could be attributed to nonresidents driving through their communities. Charles Forsyth, chief of the Hometown Police Department, said he has been frustrated ever since the data collection was mandated by the state in 2004. He said the data would not take into account the large out-of-town traffic caused by a hospital and several shopping centers located in his southwest suburban Cook County community.

In 2007, Latinos comprised almost a quarter of all stops in H o m e t ow n , though they made up about 3 percent of its 3,500 drivingage population.

Forsyth said he doesn’t scrutinize every traffic stop but checks to see if there’s any problem whenever the data show a large disparity.

So far, he said, he has not seen any evidence that his officers are targeting minorities.

But he was less specific when it came to providing details on how many nonresidents drive through his community, and he was unable to offer any proof that such traffic comes mainly from Latino drivers to account for the disparity in the stop numbers.

Similarly, officials in other communities could not provide any detailed account of the drive-through traffic in their communities.

Virginia Martinez, a legislative staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Chicago, said she is not convinced by the police’s explanation for their disparities. She said the only reason that the issue of racial profiling has not come to the forefront in the suburbs is that immigrants are too afraid to complain. “If you’re undocumented, forget it–”you don’t want to say anything,” she said.

State Sen. Iris Martinez said she believes that there’s more to the issue than what police officials acknowledge. “You are being pulled over because you’re Latino, and that’s the bottom line,” said Martinez, a co-sponsor of the legislation that mandated the traffic stop study.

Martinez said deporting criminals is one thing, but casting a wide net against one ethnic group is unfair. She has been lobbying to pass legislation that would grant a driver’s certificate to undocumented immigrants, believing that the absence of a certificate gives police officers a cover for their biased practices. “If there were a certificate in place, we would see less Latinos pulled over,” she said.

State Sen. Kwame Raoul said capturing the data isn’t enough to address the issue. He said the police should review the data internally, against other benchmarks.

“There has to be a good use of the data for law enforcement,” he said. “If [there are] a couple of bad cops, as a police commander or captain, you have to be willing to use this data internally.”

Since March 2008, the booking process at the jail in west suburban Elgin has not only included taking the routine fingerprinting and mug shot, but also running a query for individuals identified as foreign-born to a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Elgin also requested in January 2008 to participate in the immigration agency’s ACCESS program–”a series of information, training and enforcement programs designed to assist local law enforcement agencies in immigration enforcement. The city’s request has yet to be approved, according to Gail Montenegro, a spokeswoman at the immigration agency’s Chicago office.

Similar scenarios are playing out in other communities as they seek more robust working arrangements with the immigration agency.

North suburban Waukegan, northwest suburban Harvard and west suburban villages of Carpentersville and Bensenville, along with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, have requested for participation in a program called 287(g) to have authority to enforce immigration laws.

Bob Beeter, deputy chief of the Elgin Police Department, said the new processes for his department were established to make sure that they identify the criminals wanted by the immigration agency. “We focus on the serious crime guy, the guy who is doing the drugs, sex cases,” Beeter said.

But these arrangements are also the mechanism by which ordinary traffic stops can turn into immigration proceedings. According to an analysis of Elgin police’s records obtained by the Reporter, those arrested for driving without a license made up a large share of individuals screened with the immigration database. Between March and November 2008, 93, or about 40 percent, of the 233 individuals screened were arrested for driving without licenses, an analysis shows.

Even in places where formal arrangements with the immigration agency do not exist, federal officials can issue detainers to keep immigrants in custody.

At the Cook County Jail, for example, the immigration agency has at least three agents stationed to review records of individuals going through bond court, Montenegro said. They review arrest records, law enforcement databases and biographical data to identify those who may be deportable. The agents issued nearly 200 detainers in the first 10 months of 2008. Andrew Sagartz, an immigration attorney in north suburban Deerfield, said that the criminal justice system–”and its link to immigration matters–”are too complex to understand for many immigrants.

Sagartz said he has come across many cases in which immigrants readily plead guilty to minor crimes without understanding the potential immigration implications of a conviction.

Sagartz has printed brochures on legal rights and placed them in libraries throughout Waukegan. He recently opened an office in Aurora because he began hearing that notaries public were advising undocumented immigrants on how they should handle their criminal matters without understanding the immigration consequences.

“We’re experiencing the same thing there that was in Lake County many years ago,” he said. “It’s not so much directly attributable to government action–”it’s really from people not having access to good legal counsel, with respect to immigration.”

Jacqui Herrera-Giron, former director of legalization at the Instituto del Progreso Latino in Cicero, said fewer immigrants are now willing to approach law enforcement officers because they are afraid any contact can lead to deportation.

She recalled one case in which a woman called the police to report domestic violence and was asked whether she was here legally. “If the police is stopping me and asking me 50 questions,” Herrera-Giron said, “I’m not going back to the police.”

Wayne Hunter, the director of homeland security at the Lake County Sheriff’s Office, said fear of law enforcement agencies is the last thing they want. He observed that the agency is upholding the law between two poles of public opinion. On one hand, the anti-immigrant groups in Lake County want more done to combat what they consider the growing number of undocumented criminal immigrants. But immigrant advocates believe Lake County is simply interested in deporting all undocumented immigrants, regardless of any criminal record.

Lake County Sheriff Mark C. Curran Jr. said an audit showed that undocumented immigrants made up 20 percent of the inmates at the county jail. Enforcing immigration rules, he says, is a necessity for his office.

Photo by Joe Gallo

Lake County Sheriff Mark C. Curran Jr. said an audit showed that undocumented immigrants made up 20 percent of the inmates at the county jail. Enforcing immigration rules, he says, is a necessity for his office.

Hunter said it’s a difficult balancing act. “Our intention is to skim the top percent of the most violent criminals out of our society and to follow through with deportations, hopefully,” he said.

Lake County Sheriff Mark C. Curran Jr. added that an audit of the inmates at the Lake County Jail showed that 20 percent of them were undocumented immigrants. Curran said he understands that enforcing immigration law is controversial–” but it’s simply a necessity. “I can’t sit there and say that I’m not going to do my job because there are political consequences,” he said.

To hear Zane Seipler tell it, the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office sees immigrants as a cash crop. In 2004, Seipler joined the office as a deputy but was fired last year after he alleged that the office is targeting Latinos–”proxy for undocumented immigrants, he said–”for traffic stops.

Seipler said things changed soon after the county began cooperating with the immigration agency in 2006 and started providing space for immigrant detainees at the McHenry County Jail–”for $85 per detainee a day. Seipler said he began noticing the pattern that more Latinos drivers were being arrested. “The goal was to keep the immigration wing packed,” he said.

Seipler began keeping track of arrests. He said a small group of deputies were posting high stop numbers, and many of the individuals they were arresting were Latinos. “They find someone who looks like they are from Central America and follow them around,” he said. “If they’re just pulling them over to see if they have a license, that’s racial profiling.”

He also took notes of every encounter he had with deputies, supervisors and others with whom he raised the issue. For Seipler, it was more than a matter of law; it was personal. His wife is Mexican, and he feared that one day she would get harassed by a deputy looking to up the numbers.

Seipler eventually requested that an investigation be conducted. But, in November, he was fired for, according to McHenry County Sheriff Keith Nygren, violating rules and regulations.

Seipler responded by suing the office, claiming wrongful termination and violation of the Civil Rights Act. And he detailed his allegations in a legal complaint, including a claim that deputies have falsified reports, even marking Latinos as white to conceal any disparities in traffic stop reports mandated by the state.

Zane Seipler, a former deputy for the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, alleges that Latinos are being targeted by the office for traffic stops. Sheriff Keith Nygren denies the allegation.

Photo by Joe Gallo

Zane Seipler, a former deputy for the McHenry County Sheriff’s Office, alleges that Latinos are being targeted by the office for traffic stops. Sheriff Keith Nygren denies the allegation.

Nygren said Seipler’s allegations are completely false. “I’ve been sued a lot [during] 42 years, [but] this is the worst that I have ever seen leveled at anybody with no basis in fact,” said

Nygren, noting that the department investigated Seipler’s claims multiple times, finding each time that his allegations were without merit.

“I’m not going to tell you we don’t have people with prejudices and bias, but if we had someone enforcing the law based upon their bias, we would take action. We would not tolerate it,” he added.

Nygren declined to discuss specifics of the case, citing the ongoing suit.

If Seipler’s claims are true, the sheriff’s office’s behaviors illustrate how law enforcement activities can be intricately connected with immigration issues, immigrant advocates say.

They say the lack of national immigration reform and absence of driver’s certificates for undocumented immigrants in Illinois has created a perfect storm of sorts that’s creating an environment in which individual communities are compelled to take immigration matters into their own hands.

Approaches vary in each community.

Since 1996, law enforcement agencies in McHenry County have filed charges against about 3,000 individuals for driving without a license and, since 1999, filed more than 500 charges for those who were in possession of fraudulent documents, according to the Reporter’s analysis. But many of these charges have come from only a handful of communities. Five communities, including Harvard, Woodstock and Crystal Lake, racked up 70 percent of all charges.

But in communities like Round Lake, simple traffic stops lead to only court appearances, not arrests. Francis Foy, deputy chief at the Round Lake Police Department, said officers have discretion to decide whether to arrest a motorist who is driving without a license, and that it’s often more convenient to issue a citation to appear in court.

These varying strategies and realities for motorists mean an extra layer of uncertainties that adds to their sense of fear, advocates say.

Tara Tidwell Cullen, a spokeswoman for the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicagobased nonprofit that represents immigrants facing deportation, said the sentiment extends to all manner of contact with law enforcement agencies.

“People don’t want to answer their doors anymore. It’s tragic. It’s not the country we’re supposed to be,” she said. Laimutis Nargelenas, director of the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, draws a line between responsible police activities and immigration enforcement. If police officers encounter an immigrant driving without a license, he said, it is their duty to charge them with the offense. But enforcing immigration offenses, let alone taking part in profiling, is beyond what’s called for, he said.

Ultimately, he said, it falls on each community to keep an eye on its police department if the law is not applied fairly and evenly. “The community needs to hold those police departments accountable,” he said.

For his part, state Rep. Edward Acevedo has pledged to reintroduce legislation securing protections for undocumented immigrants. He hopes that, with a new administration in the White House and support from colleagues in Springfield, he can successfully make his case that granting permits is a safety measure, not an amnesty.

“There are 250,000 undocumented [immigrants] already driving on the roads without licenses and insurance [in Illinois]. When they get into an automobile accident, whose premium goes up? The individual with the license and insurance. Who gets in trouble? The undocumented immigrant,” Acevedo said.

Meanwhile, Raoul, who helped establish a state oversight board to hold the police accountable, said police departments themselves have to step up and make themselves accountable. “You’re not going to [re-]train a racist,” he said. “You have to develop consequences.”

Laura Burns, Kara Madden and Joe O’Donnell helped research this article.

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