Trump tests how far we'll go to protect immigrants here illegally

There's a great amount of pride that goes with living in a sanctuary city. It feels good to say to the world that, in Chicago and Cook County, we are compassionate people who believe that it is inhumane to rip immigrant families apart.

But there could come a time in the near future when we will have to ask some serious questions about the cost of that compassion. How much are American citizens willing to sacrifice to protect the rights of those who are living in our country illegally?

Under Donald Trump's administration, the risks of providing a safe haven for immigrants in the U.S. illegally are higher than ever. Trump has made it clear that he wants those who have committed even minor offenses removed from the country. And he has shown even less tolerance for the cities that choose to harbor them.

Our city and county are among some 300 jurisdictions across the country to declare themselves sanctuary cities. In Chicago, that means local law enforcement provides little, if any, assistance to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents attempting to round up immigrants here illegally. That includes those already in Cook County Jail.

On Friday, the Trump administration sent letters to nine of the largest jurisdictions, including Chicago and Cook County, warning that they must cooperate with federal immigration authorities seeking to identify immigrants who are in the custody of local police and sheriff departments — or else.

Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle were told that they have until June 30 to prove compliance or they will risk losing federal grants that help fund local law enforcement.

That "or else" isn't just a thinly veiled threat. It's a pledge, and we must take the president at his word.

In his budget plan released last month, Trump proposed slashing $210 million in federal reimbursements to state and local jails in municipalities that refuse to cooperate with deportation officials.

Specifically, he would eliminate money from the U.S. Justice Department's State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which distributes the reimbursements. Last year, the state of Illinois received $6.7 million from the program, according to the Justice Department. Of that, the Illinois Department of Corrections received $4.7 million and Cook County received $1.3 million.

It isn't clear exactly how much federal money the city and county could ultimately lose over time.

Who knows? The president could try to get Congress to scale back on the entire $24.5 million Chicago gets from the Justice Department, affecting everything from police officer training to the body cameras officers are required to wear under new reform regulations.

Chicago has a smaller immigrant population than cities like Los Angeles and New York. But in some ways, we have more at stake.

The funds would be taken away as the city and state are facing severe financial obstacles that threaten to create long-term consequences for education, social services and other much-needed programs that affect our most needy citizens.

The president's warning also comes as violence is escalating in our poor and minority neighborhoods. Despite Trump's false assertions, there is no evidence that immigrants here illegally are fueling Chicago's soaring homicide rate. The majority of homicides in Chicago involve African-Americans who live on the South and West sides.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other supporters of sanctuary cities insist that protecting immigrants from deportation helps lower crime. Residents here illegally are more likely to report being victims of a crime and assist in solving crimes without the threat of deportation hanging overhead.

Still, losing any amount of federal funds could hamper efforts to get violent criminals off the streets and keep them off. As a result, all of us could suffer the consequences.

A handful of aldermen recently voted against Emanuel's plan to spend $1 million on a municipal identification card for people living in Chicago illegally. That's $1 million we couldn't afford to spend on a program that has no obvious benefits other than to show Trump that Chicago means business.

There's nothing to like about Trump's tough guy stance on immigration. In fact, many Americans find it repulsive.

But let's face it. The president has our backs against the wall.

In the Trump administration's letter to Chicago and others, the government cited a 1996 federal law that prohibits local jurisdictions from restricting law enforcement agencies from providing information to federal immigration authorities regarding anyone's immigration status.

It is shameful how Trump has interpreted this as a right to round up people like cattle. It angers us when high-achieving young people — so-called Dreamers, recipients of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program — are forced out of the country they have long called home. We abhor the idea of parents being dragged away while their young children helplessly look on.

I am glad that Chicago Public Schools has ordered its principals to turn away ICE agents who seek to enter the grounds without warrants. I applaud Cardinal Blase Cupich for instructing Catholic priests to turn away federal immigration officials who come to their parishes without warrants. The law allows for that.

It's gracious of Emanuel to vow that Chicago is a "welcoming city." But unless the courts rule otherwise, we must abide by the law or pay the consequences.

The price of freedom has always been high. Under Trump, it could become unaffordable.

dglanton@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @dahleeng

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