On September 7 Ernesto Cruz was sitting on his parked motorcycle outside his girlfriend's home in Albany Park when a car pulled up and two men got out. Cruz, a 21-year-old native of Mexico City who came to Chicago with his parents and brother six years ago, says the men were wearing jeans, bulletproof vests, holsters, and green-and-yellow baseball caps that said U.S. Border Patrol. One of them asked if his motorcycle had a license plate. "I pointed to it," he says.
Cruz says the men then asked to see his driver's license. He told them he'd lost his wallet, so all he had was his student ID from Northeastern Illinois University, where he's a business major. Then they asked for his social security number. Cruz, who also works at a restaurant, says the men put his hands against their car and searched him, and then one of them took his keys out of his pocket, got on his motorcycle, and rode off. He says the other man told him, "We're impounding your motorcycle and putting it up for auction--you're not getting it back."
When Cruz asked what he'd done, the man said, "You're illegal--that's why you don't have anything." Cruz would later learn that the two men were actually Chicago police officers and that a city ordinance bans police and other city employees from asking about a person's immigration status.
Cruz says the second man, who never identified himself, handcuffed him, put him in the car, and drove to the 17th District police station at 4650 N. Pulaski. As they got out of the car, Cruz says, the man told him, "Because of illegals like you we have to pay more for everything. I have to pay more for insurance. That's why we're taking as much as we can from you."
Cruz's girlfriend, Jessica Monzalvo, who'd come out of the house in the meantime, watched the car drive to the police station just a few blocks away. She walked there and called his 19-year-old brother, Juan Cruz. Juan, a political science major at Northeastern, went to the police station and called the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, a community organization he and Ernesto volunteer with. He told the group's executive director, Jenny Arwade, he didn't know why Ernesto had been taken to the police station, since the men who took him away had been wearing border patrol hats. Arwade called immigration lawyers and was told that immigration agents had started using police stations as temporary holding facilities. (APNC staff made it clear they wouldn't talk to me for this story unless I promised not to ask Cruz whether he's in the U.S. legally or not; they said it wasn't relevant.)
About 40 minutes after arriving at the station Ernesto was given tickets for driving without a license and without insurance, then told where he could find his bike. After paying a fine he retrieved it from a nearby lot.
Cruz had found out that the two men were plainclothes police officers, not immigration agents, and he let Arwade know. Early that evening she and an APNC board member, Diane Limas, went to the police station. Limas says the officer at the desk knew which officers had detained Cruz, telling her they were two tactical officers with the police department.
The two women asked to meet with a supervisor, and Limas says the man they talked to told them that officers are always trading caps with people from other law enforcement agencies. Border patrol caps aren't hard to get--Arwade later found one on eBay. She and Limas also asked to speak to the district commander, Charles Dulay, and he called the APNC office later that evening. Limas says he told her the officers had made some inappropriate statements and it wouldn't happen again. "He was very understanding," she says. "He was basically apologizing and hoping we would drop the issue." (When I tried to reach Dulay an officer at the station referred me to police news affairs. In early October spokesperson Monique Bond told me the department had opened an internal investigation and as a consequence she couldn't comment or release the names of the officers. Several calls to her for updates weren't returned.)
The next day APNC staff learned that in making Cruz's immigration status an issue, the officers had violated a city ordinance. Chicago is one of several municipalities around the country that have passed such regulations. For example , in 1979 Los Angeles barred police from enforcing immigration laws, though last spring the conservative group Judicial Watch sued the police department in an attempt to overturn the city's law; the case is still in court. Over the past few years municipal police departments have periodically railed against federal proposals that would require them to take on immigration enforcement duties, arguing that they don't have enough staff and that any such action would harm relations with immigrant communities. But the Department of Homeland Security has been encouraging local police to help enforce the laws, and this fall it began pushing a voluntary program called Section 287(g), which shows local police officers how to determine if suspects in their custody are undocumented. Under the program, local officers would be able to start deportation proceedings without going through DHS. So far at least seven state and local law enforcement agencies have signed on, though there doesn't seem to have been any public discussion of the program in Illinois.
As more anti-immigrant legislation has been proposed--including last year's infamous House Resolution 4437, which would, among other things, make assisting an illegal immigrant a crime--rumors have raced through Latino neighborhoods in Chicago. Because I regularly report on immigration issues, in August I got frantic phone calls describing a roadblock on Cermak in Little Village. The rumor turned out not to be true: "Someone saw what they thought was an immigration checkpoint, and people started calling other people and letting them know or asking if they'd heard," Victoria Cervantes, an immigrants' rights activist in Little Village, told me. "Maybe it was just a state trooper pulling someone over. But for undocumented people, there is always this current of fear that they could be deported at any time. So when someone thinks they see something it spreads like crazy. People stay home from their jobs and are afraid to send their kids to school."
Limas says that when Cruz was detained her office was flooded with calls from people wondering if a sweep was in progress. "Panic spread in the community," she says. "They didn't know if they would be stopped if they walked their kids to school." Albany Park has many Latino residents but also plenty of immigrants from Africa, eastern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East--around 30 different languages are spoken in the local schools. Prateek Sampat, a citizenship coordinator for APNC, says that in August he saw two men in bulletproof gear and border patrol caps asking men for identification on Lawrence near Kimball and that two weeks later he saw them again. "The men they were questioning looked of African descent," he says.
Limas says once word got out that the men who'd detained Cruz were actually Chicago police "the fear turned to fury." Six days after the incident the APNC organized a march from Roosevelt High School to the 17th District station and held a press conference attended by journalists from, among others, the Latino and Korean media and public officials such as Alderman Richard Mell, state senator Ira Silverstein, and state representative Richard Bradley. Around 100 community residents joined the march.
APNC staff also called Cook County commissioner Roberto Maldonado, who'd recently proposed a "sanctuary" resolution that would prevent county employees from asking about immigration status. Juan Cruz met with Maldonado, and Ernesto Cruz testified at a hearing on the resolution. At the hearing Maldonado described a September 11 incident in which officers with the Stroger Hospital police force confronted a 77-year-old Puerto Rican man named Agustin Sotomayor while he was waiting to pick up his wife, who worked at the hospital. Maldonado said they asked if Sotomayor was Mexican and if he was in the U.S. legally, and when he was slow to respond three officers pulled him out of the car and beat him (they were later suspended, and county and federal officials are investigating). He also described an incident in which county sheriffs asked customers at a Franklin Park Mexican restaurant for identification. "Whether you are a citizen or not you are racially profiled, even if you speak English and were born here," he says. "Police harass young Latinos because they are brown. We're being profiled because we have become the primary minority group."
On October 2 Maldonado's proposal was passed by the Law Enforcement and Corrections Committee of the Cook County Board. He says he thought about calling for a vote before the full board on November 14 but decided he wanted to persuade two more board members to vote for it and delayed the vote until late December.
Ernesto Cruz has contested both the tickets he was given and has a traffic court date in December. He's also considering filing a civil lawsuit. APNC has already helped him file a complaint with the police department's Office of Professional Standards. "We're demanding a full investigation," says Arwade. "Why was he stopped, why was he asked his status, and why were they wearing those hats?"
On October 26 the APNC received a letter from police superintendent Philip Cline stating, "The Department prohibits our officers from wearing hats with logos associated with immigration agencies....Furthermore, it is against the Chicago Police Department's policy to question anyone regarding their immigration status....The Chicago Police Department takes your concerns very seriously and while this is a sensitive issue, we are doing everything we can to ensure this type of incident does not occur."
According to APNC staff, Cruz has agreed to be interviewed by OPS officials. He lives just five blocks from the district station and worries that the two officers who confronted him will find some way to retaliate. "Since this happened I haven't been going outside except to go to school and come back home and go to work," he says.
Other people are worried too. Maria Guzman, who's lived in Albany Park for 23 years and is a parent leader at the local elementary school, says Cruz's experience has made her afraid for her five children. "The cops are supposed to be out there to protect us, but they're intimidating us," she says. "Even though my children are U.S. citizens, I'm afraid they'll go out to the movies or dinner, and then I'll get a call saying they're arrested."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo byYvette Marie Dostatni.