Gang database compromises Chicago’s sanctuary city protections

Photo by Stacey Rupolo

A coalition of groups and aldermen demand amending the Welcoming City ordinance so that the Chicago Police Department cannot work with immigration enforcement officials at City Hall on July 18, 2016.

On the first day of school, Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared Chicago’s schools to be “a sanctuary,” saying, “We do not allow federal agents on these grounds.”

But with Chicago police stationed in schools, any officer can include anyone they choose in the department’s gang database. That database is freely shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and used to target people for deportation, making the claim meaningless, one expert said.

“It’s really galling to hear that you’re not going to allow ICE access to schools, but you give them access to your database,” said Stephanie Kollmann, policy director of Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center. “It’s unconscionable.”

With Emanuel stonewalling reforms to Chicago’s Welcoming City ordinance, the police department’s gang database is emerging as the focus of efforts to protect immigrants here.

The push is fueling new coalition-building between immigrants and African-American organizations. And it’s exposing the gap between Emanuel’s pro-immigrant, anti-Trump rhetoric and the reality of policies that fall short in protecting the city’s residents.

Currently two federal lawsuits are challenging the city’s gang database, while Organized Communities Against Deportation and Black Youth Project 100 are seeking release of basic information about the program.

The lawsuits are on behalf of Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez and Luis Pedrote-Salinas, both of whom charge they were falsely included in CPD’s gang database and then targeted by ICE in gang sweep operations.  They charge that inclusion in the database violates their due process rights, and that by targeting black and Latino men for gang listings – sometimes simply based on the neighborhood in which they were stopped by police – CPD violates civil rights laws.

Pedrote-Salinas, a high school graduate and factory worker, was listed on the database when he was arrested after police saw an unopened can of beer in his car.  It’s not known how Catalan-Ramirez, a mechanic and father, got on the database, though he was apparently listed at separate times as a member of rival gangs.

His lawsuit charges the gang database is “arbitrary, overly-inclusive” and “riddled with false information.”

It’s noteworthy that both men were victims of crimes and cooperating with police investigations. Both were denied certification by CPD needed to apply for a temporary U-Visa available to victims and witnesses of crimes – according to their lawsuits, because of their false listing in the gang database.

This points up one of the major contradictions between Chicago’s claim as a sanctuary city and its insistence on maintaining its gang database, said Rebecca Glenberg of the ACLU of Illinois: “One of the purposes of the Welcoming City Ordinance is to make the immigrant community comfortable reporting a crime, but how can they be sure they’re not exposing themselves or their relatives to immigration enforcement if they don’t know if they could be on this list?”

Basic information about the database isn’t known, including how large it is, though experts suggest it may include hundreds of thousands of names. No one is told when they’re being listed, there’s no process for challenging one’s inclusion, and the database apparently includes people who were listed as gang members decades ago.

In a FOIA request, Organized Communities Against Deportation and Black Youth Project are seeking information on the police department’s policies on sharing database information with ICE and the names of individuals whose information has been shared; processes for updating and checking the accuracy of information; policies on notification of individuals regarding their inclusion and whether they can challenge the listing or be removed; and documents regarding civil rights investigations related to the database.

Meanwhile one of Pedrote-Salinas’ attorneys said a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the program is in the works. Brendan Schiller said that over the years, he’s heard from numerous Chicagoans—most of them U.S.-born—who say they’ve been negatively impacted because of unfair inclusion in the database. He adds that many of them are discussing joining a lawsuit.

“It’s not just an immigrant issue,” said Janae Bonsu, national policy director of the BYP.  “It’s a tool of racial profiling and criminalization of black and brown people in Chicago.”

Database listing impacts people “in all phases of the criminal legal process,” she said, from racial profiling on the street to harsher treatment by judges. Mere inclusion in the database can automatically increase sentences for some crimes, Kollmann said.

BYP and Organized Communities are calling for eliminating the gang database. And with the city of Portland recently doing exactly that, “it’s not an outlandish idea,” Bonsu said.

The coalition is also pushing to expand the definition of sanctuary “so we recognize that everyone in Chicago deserves to be safe from racial profiling and police harassment and violence,” Bonsu said.  That reflects the coalition’s goal of “bridging the gap” between blacks and Latinos, between U.S.-born and immigrants. With increasing attacks on civil rights, “we can’t afford to be operating in silos and not protecting each other,” she said

Another gap exists between Emanuel’s rhetoric, including his promise in 2012 to make Chicago “the most immigrant-friendly city in the world,” and his record of advocating a “go slow” approach to immigration reform while in the White House and Congress, as well as limiting protections as mayor.

Emanuel has consistently put off efforts by progressive aldermen and immigrant advocates to clarify the city’s policies, said Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa. After Ramirez-Rosa introduced a measure with 27 co-sponsors updating the Welcoming City Ordinance by removing exemptions to a ban on sharing information with federal agencies (including names on the gang database), the mayor’s office “came back with language that fell very, very short” of what’s needed, he said.

Now “the mayor’s office has made it clear it’s going to use [a city lawsuit challenging the U.S. Justice Department’s policy on sanctuary cities] as an excuse to sidetrack this conversation,” Ramirez-Rosa said.  With the Trump administration “casting a wide dragnet” in order to ramp up deportations, he argues, “it’s time to move on substantive policies to protect our communities.”

“I believe it’s time to end [the gang database],” Ramirez-Rosa said. ”It’s not smart policing, it’s not constitutional, it’s not fair to individuals and it has serious consequences.”