Throughout Chicago’s history, immigrants from all over the world have come to make the city home. In 2010, more than 500,000 immigrants lived in Chicago, about twenty percent of the city’s population. According to a 2017 Tribune analysis, some 180,000 of those immigrants are undocumented, living in the shadows and the threat of deportation.
While federal authorities like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—prior to 2003, it was known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)—are responsible for deporting people, local and state authorities, including police, have cooperated with ICE by participating in raids, sharing information about residents’ immigration status or criminal records, and handing over detainees to ICE.
Over the past few decades, Chicago has taken steps to shield undocumented immigrants from INS and ICE and welcome people regardless of their immigration status. In 1985, former Mayor Harold Washington issued an executive order prohibiting City employees from enforcing federal immigration laws and halting the City’s practice of asking job and driver’s license applicants about their citizenship status. It paved the way for more City policies that humanized Chicago’s undocumented residents and were advanced by politicians in ensuing years.
Former mayor Richard M. Daley reaffirmed Washington’s executive order, and in 2006 City Council voted it into law. In July 2012, then-mayor Rahm Emanuel announced his intention to introduce the “Welcoming City” ordinance, which expanded on the previous law.
The Welcoming City ordinance protects undocumented Chicago residents by restricting City agencies from cooperating and sharing information with federal immigration authorities. It prohibits Chicago police from questioning, arresting, and prosecuting people solely on the suspicion that they may be undocumented.
The ordinance also prevents the City from holding people in custody based on ICE warrants and detainer hold requests. For about a decade, the warrant and detainer provisions had exceptions—for example, Chicago police could cooperate with ICE in criminal cases or if an undocumented immigrant was suspected of being gang affiliated—but these were finally removed in a 2021 update to the ordinance, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot signed.
Before that, then-Governor Bruce Rauner signed the 2017 bipartisan Illinois TRUST Act which wrote similar policies into state law, like preventing jails and prisons from retaining an undocumented immigrant due to a detainer—a detention request from ICE—without a criminal warrant signed by a judge.
Made possible by the work of immigrant grassroots and advocacy groups, in 2022 Illinois enacted the Illinois Way Forward Act, which built on the TRUST Act by barring immigration detention centers from operating in Illinois, among other provisions.
The Welcoming City ordinance grants all immigrants access to City services and protects residents of all ages at school and work. The city will not ask about people’s immigration status nor disclose that information to federal authorities, though undocumented immigrants can face arrest or prosecution if they break laws while already here.
Over the past decades, immigrants have demanded these protections, urging politicians in acts of civil disobedience, marches, and grassroots organizing in Chicago and across the nation.
These policies have sometimes led people to call Chicago a “sanctuary city” for immigrants, but immigrant advocates urge that people use a more accurate term.
“We do not use the term ‘sanctuary city,’ which has no clear definition and is dangerously misleading,” said Fred Tsao, Senior Policy Counsel at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). “For those hostile to immigrants, this term plays into their mindset tying immigration to crime, suggesting that some communities allow immigrants to commit crimes and avoid consequences. For some immigrant communities, the term suggests that ICE is not operating in these communities. Neither notion is true, and neither should be encouraged.”
“As the ordinance suggests, [Welcoming] City or [Welcoming] State is a better fitting term to describe what we have known as a Sanctuary City,” said Brandon Lee, Director of Communications with ICIRR. “We want to welcome our immigrant community, not mislead nor confuse.”
To continue to provide resources to all, in 2018 Chicago created the CityKey municipal ID, an identification card that can be obtained without disclosing immigration status, and which serves many people who otherwise have difficulty getting identity cards, including undocumented immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, and formerly incarcerated people. The CityKey ID can be used as a library card, a Ventra card, and comes with discounts to businesses all over the city.
Additionally, the state of Illinois and the City of Chicago have invested in providing grants to provide legal services and resources for immigrants regardless of their legal status. This year, the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) dedicated $20 million in pandemic-related emergency assistance to Illinois immigrants regardless of immigration status.
As of March 2021, the following states have implemented similar welcoming policies: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Some conservatives have claimed that welcoming cities have more crime than non-welcoming cities, but data shows this is not true. According to the Center for American Progress, there are, on average, 35.5 fewer crimes committed per 10,000 people in welcoming counties compared to non-welcoming counties. Poverty and unemployment are also lower.
“Cities like Chicago enact these policies because they recognize the dignity and contributions of immigrants in the community and the harm that family separation and alienation from law enforcement and city services can inflict on the entire city,” said Tsao. “Chicago and Illinois have provided models for how other cities and states across the country can welcome and appreciate immigrants.”
Sofia McDowell De La Mancha is a freelance writer, blogger and marketing professional. She last wrote about Lawrence’s Fish and Shrimp for Best of the South Side 2022.