Holding Suspected Immigrants in Jail

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WINNEBAGO COUNTY (WIFR) -- Lorenzo Valverde came to America from Mexico in 1999. A local referee he has no criminal record. But in 2010 a stoplight changed his life.

"There was a car driving in front of me, the light was red, we were talking, he ran the red and then I followed the light was red so the police came around the other car wasn't stopped but I was," Valverde said.

Valverde says he spent the next three nights in jail for driving with a suspended license and running a red light.

"I had never been in jail, I had never been with people like that [criminals]. I didn't know what to do," Valverde said.

On the fourth day he was handcuffed and taken in a van to Chicago. Lorenzo only spent six hours in Chicago before they let him come back to Rockford.

Immigration Attorney Sara Dady says, "If that person doesn't have a serious criminal record they are released to return home to their families to wait for their first immigration hearing."

So why did taxpayers pay for Lorenzo to stay in jail, especially since he's not a violent criminal? Because jail records show Winnebago County has spent nearly $20,000 in the last couple of years keeping suspected illegal immigrants behind bars.

It works like this, when someone's booked into jail their fingerprints are given to the federal government. If immigration and customs think they could be illegal they issue a document called a detainer. It gives local jails the right to hold people up to 48 hours longer than normal.
Winnebago County Sheriff Dick Meyers says "It has nothing to do with stereotyping or racial profiling or anything, it's trying to identify people who come into our jail who are wanted for serious crimes elsewhere."

According to jail records, since 2010, at least 170 suspected illegal immigrants have spent extra time in the Winnebago County Jail and it's costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, the sheriff says it's worth it.

Meg: Do you think this is a necessary expense? Meyers: "I don't think it's out of the ordinary for what we're doing and again when you look at that $20,000 if that's what it costs us to get 110 people off the streets that have been involved in these level one and level two crimes that's a reasonable price to pay to do that."

In other words some of the detainers are issued for serious criminals but jail records tell a different story.

"The vast majority of criminal detainers that I see are for very minor criminal offenses. Usually driving without a license, or possession of a fraudulent ID," Dady said.

Since 2010 nearly 400 detainers have been issued to people in the Winnebago County Jail. One-hundred-and-seventy of those people posted their bond, but taxpayers spent extra money to keep them behind bars until immigration officials could come pick them up.

It's expensive but the sheriff says he's never even considered asking the federal government for reimbursement.

"We don't send a bill to them. When they pick up our people they don't send a bill to us," Meyers said.

This may be costing taxpayers even more money because local immigration attorneys say some people have stopped posting bond altogether, even on small cases. Because they are so scared of being hauled off by immigration. So people who would normally be out of jail right away are sitting there and we're paying for it.

In Cook County the county board president said hey we aren't doing this anymore unless you pay for it and the feds came back and said, finally, that they would. There are fewer detainers being issued now, than three years ago, because the government just can't keep up with the court cases.

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