Over the past week, an unknown number of Chicago residents received anonymous robocalls that claimed to be polling support for a proposed amendment to the Welcoming City Ordinance that could allow Chicago police to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. The robocalls contained misleading statements about the content of the amendment, proposed by 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez, who denies having sent the call.
The pre-recorded messages claim that the amendment’s goal is to “allow the police to cooperate with federal officials so that criminal illegal aliens can be picked up by the government and deported after they complete their jail time in Chicago.” The call ends by asking recipients to demonstrate their support for the proposal by pressing one, or to “press two if you do not support it.”
The Office of Alderman Raymond Lopez stated that they did not pay for, produce, or send out the message, and that their office has also received the robocall. He did not elaborate on his proposal.
Recently, tensions between new arrivals living in and around city shelters, and long-term residents who live near the shelters, have been high. Proposals to open additional shelters have drawn backlash from some Chicagoans over the past few weeks, with residents in Kenwood and West Roseland arguing against the shelters over concerns of public safety and disruptive behavior.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, a robocall is a call featuring a recorded message instead of a live person. The federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act prohibits robocalls or prerecorded voices to mobile phones unless the recipient has provided prior express written or oral consent, though calls to landlines are allowed without prior consent.
Sarah Bates, who is a resident of Rogers Park, says she received the robocall at 6:29pm on September 12—on her cell phone—from a (708) 740-7002 number. Bates listened to the call for about six seconds before hanging up.
Bates stated that she has never lived in Lopez’s ward and is not subscribed to his newsletter, and is unclear on how a caller seeking her opinion on Lopez’s proposal got her number. Another recipient of the call received it on their cell phone on the same day at 4:19pm.
The calls that residents have received do not explicitly identify the caller or provide a contact phone number. Though the recorded message credits Lopez for the proposal for which it is polling, it does not credit him for the call itself. Calls made back to the caller number do not go through. The Federal Communications Commission’s TCPA rules requires “all prerecorded calls, including market research or polling calls, to identify the caller at the beginning of the message and include a contact phone number.”
Lopez has been vocal to news outlets about his proposed amendment since late August. In several interviews with reporters, he has stated that he intended to introduce the amendment to the City Council during the City Council Meeting last week on September 13th, but did not end up doing so.
In an interview with ABC 7 News, Lopez described the scope of his amendment, which seems to target a broader demographic than convicted and undocumented migrants, as stated in the robocall. Lopez’s proposal vaguely states that it would allow the city to work with ICE if “new arrivals engage in four areas of specific criminality, which include gang-related activity, drug-related activity, prostitution-related activity and sex crimes against minors,” according to the article. The interview does not explain what “engage” would legally entail.
Fred Tsao, senior policy counsel at Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR), said that “the call is certainly misleading. While the call insinuates that the ordinance would apply to those convicted of a crime, Lopez’s proposal covers people who have been arrested and charged with certain offenses without even requiring a conviction beyond reasonable doubt.”
Tsao also expressed concern that the “the timing of the call [will] add to confusion among the public. While much of the recent public dialogue has been focused on new arrivals, Lopez’s ordinance would go far beyond recent arrivals and apply to anyone in this city who is not yet a citizen.”
Prior to 2021, Chicago police could cooperate with federal immigration authorities under certain exceptions, such as if a person under investigation had an outstanding criminal warrant or had been included in the Police Department’s gang-member database. This meant that undocumented individuals could be deported before having the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law, or if they were listed in the CPD gang database.
But in February 2021, alderpersons voted forty-one to eight to eliminate these exemptions in the Welcoming City Ordinance under Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Local watchdog organizations found the gang database to disproportionately target Black and Latinx Chicagoans and it was permanently scrapped by the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability earlier this month.
The robocall’s “end goal of rolling back protections for immigrants is plain and clear,” Tsao suggested. “Communities fought long and hard to demand protection for all through welcoming policies at the city and state levels, and this ordinance is an attempt to undo decades of progress under six different mayoral administrations.”
“[The call] is disturbing because it’s…painting any person that has any interaction with police, whether it be for any reason, as a criminal alien already,” said Xanat Sobrevilla, who leads Organized Communities Against Deportation’s (OCAD) campaign and coalition work. OCAD, a collective that fights the deportation and criminalization of immigrants, is aware of the robocalls. “The language is very much dehumanizing and incorrect.”
Sobrevilla is critical of the wording of the robocall and Lopez’s proposal because both are ”encouraging collaboration between ICE and police, which we know can be very dangerous. I mean, we fought as a community for five years to undo exceptions or carve outs, as we would call them, that would allow police to interact with ICE.”
To protect undocumented Chicago residents, under the current Welcoming City Ordinance, Chicago’s agents and agencies, including the police, cannot work with nor share information with federal immigration authorities. City agents and agencies can not grant ICE agents access to a person who’s being detained.
“We’re very much aware and willing to continue to ensure that [the Ordinance] stands. We believe that what he’s trying to do, we’re hoping [the Ordinance] also would be protected by the Trust Act,” said Sobrevilla. The Illinois TRUST Act limits state and local law enforcement’s participation in federal immigration enforcement.
As to the unknown origins of the robocall, Sobrevilla was curious to know “just how they get people’s data information. I would also be a little bit concerned.” Ultimately, she characterizes the robocall “as a PR stunt, as a very confusing way to play on a divisive moment.”
Chicagoans who have received this robocall or other unwanted calls can file complaints with the FCC by going to fcc.gov/complaints. The FCC publishes information on how to identify and avoid robocalls at ftc.gov/calls, which is also available in Spanish at ftc.gov/llamadas.
Wendy is the immigration section editor at South Side Weekly and covers interracial solidarity between communities of color.