Lightfoot calls Chicago ‘the most welcoming city’ for immigrants, but some nonprofit leaders disagree

By Anabel Mendoza
Medill Reports

A month after Mayor Lori Lightfoot called Chicago “the most welcoming city” for immigrants, representatives from local immigrant rights organizations said this characterization doesn’t reflect reality.

Lightfoot’s statement followed a report by the New American Economy last November, which ranked the city as first among the 100 largest cities in the U.S. for integrative immigration policies.

The New American Economy, a national bipartisan organization focused on immigration reform, surveyed questions like: “How do law enforcement agencies treat immigrants?” and “Do immigrants have equal access to information, services and opportunities?” Chicago received a five out of five on its policy score.

But many nonprofit leaders and community organizers said that the city’s policies have remained limited in its protection of immigrants. In Chicago, immigrants make up one-fifth of the city’s overall population, according to the Office of New Americans, a department of the city that works to improve services for immigrant communities.

Rey Wences is the co-founder of the Immigrant Youth Justice League which later became the Organized Communities Against Deportations, two organizations focused on supporting undocumented immigrants in Chicago. Wences said the city has tried to make people believe it has been “the most welcoming” for immigrant communities. “However, the devil is in the details.”

Wences, who has lobbied for immigrant rights in Chicago for over a decade, said the report’s findings and Lightfoot’s characterization of the city don’t address the legislative loopholes that continue to allow the Chicago Police Department and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to target and criminalize undocumented immigrants of color.

Citlalli Bueno-Lares, an immigration activist in Little Village, the 84% Latino neighborhood in Chicago’s west side, agreed. Bueno-Lares, who also works as an organizer for Enlace Chicago, an advocacy organization committed to social justice for Latinos, said Chicago won’t be truly welcoming until the city implements laws that prevent ICE from detaining immigrants.

“As long as people are still being detained, we can’t really call ourselves ‘the most welcoming city,’” Bueno-Lares said.

Last month, the City Council passed the Accountability on Communication and Transparency ordinance, a regulation that restricts city agencies and employees from helping ICE officials gather data on immigrant communities.

Nevertheless, some organizers said the collaboration between ICE officials and the CPD has continued.

“It’s not a welcoming city for all immigrants but only for some,” Wences said. Immigrants who have a federal warrant or prior felony conviction were among those who have been least protected by the city’s immigrant policies, according to Wences and other organizers.

In April 2019, former CPD Superintendent Eddie Johnson agreed to let ICE deputize Chicago police officers as “customs officers.” While no officers have been deputized so far, Wences said the agreement was an example of the exceptions that have been allowed under Chicago’s policies.

Chaz Lee, program manager focused on youth at the HANA Center, a Korean immigrant rights organization, said these exceptions to city policies were also known as “carve-outs” which have disproportionately targeted undocumented immigrants in Chicago’s predominantly black and brown communities.

The CPD’s gang database was one example of a city carve-out, Lee said. According to Lee, the gang database, which contains personal information of individuals said to be affiliated with a gang, falsely included some undocumented immigrants in its gang listings.

One widely reported case of this was in 2017 when ICE officials detained Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez, an undocumented man from Back of the Yards, a neighborhood on the city’s southwest side. The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild reported that the CPD erroneously included Catalan-Ramirez in its gang database, which ICE then used to locate him. Catalan-Ramirez was held in immigrant detention for 10 months.

While city officials have taken steps to introduce more comprehensive legislation, Lee, Bueno-Lares and other organizers said carve-outs like the gang database need to be abolished completely.

“We have to have protection for all,” Bueno-Lares said. “We can’t let some people fall through the cracks.”

Photo at top: The Declaration of Immigration mural painted in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood pays homage to the city’s immigrants and immigrant rights organizers who continue to advocate for fair and inclusive legislation for all. (Anabel Mendoza/MEDILL)