Joliet police will not do the work of immigration authorities, mayor says

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Joliet police Chief Brian Benton talks with members of the audience during a special session of the City Council on Feb. 15, 2017, to address residents’ concerns over recent deportations. (Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune)

Joliet law enforcement has no plans to do the work of federal immigration authorities, city leaders said during a special meeting Wednesday night.

Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk called the meeting to answer questions from residents about immigration. The forum drew about 700 people, mostly Latinos.

Last week, federal authorities arrested hundreds of people living in the U.S. illegally in a series of raids across several states. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement described the action as routine, but some viewed the raids as part of a crackdown pushed by the Trump administration, prompting fear in some immigrant communities.

O’Dekirk said Joliet has not been asked to — nor does it plan to — round up people living in the U.S. illegally. He also noted that the city does not have the resources to do the job of federal agents.

O’Dekirk told the gathering at Our Lady of Mount Carmel church that the city will continue to do what it always has done to enforce state and local laws and keep the community safe. While immigrants will not be targeted, Joliet will not declare itself a sanctuary city, the mayor said.

"I believe it’s a mistake to openly declare that we are defying the federal government," O’Dekirk said, adding that Chicago’s sanctuary city status did not stop recent immigration arrests.

"We understand the entire subject of immigration is a deeply emotional subject. … I can assure you that we can offer compassion," City Council member Larry Hug said. "(But) we cannot honestly break the law as elected officials."

Despite city assurances, many in the audience had questions about what to do if they get stopped for a traffic violation or if federal agents come knocking on their door. Some worried about what to do if they were separated from their U.S.-born children.

"We have many, many immigrants in our community who are scared," said Mary Helen Reyna, an immigration attorney from Bolingbrook.

She advised people to have their papers with them when they go out. She also suggested carrying a list of phone numbers of local agencies, their immigration attorney and others they could call for help if detained by immigration authorities. Parents also should fill out paperwork for guardianship of their children, she said.

"It’s better for us as parents to decide where our children go and not put them in the hands of any other agency," Reyna said.

She reminded those in the crowd to be sure immigration officials have the proper paperwork, such as a warrant, before going with them, that they have a right to an attorney and that they do not have to talk to agents.

Others called for immigrants to take action. Some suggested participating in protests or calling elected officials to urge changes to immigration law.

Additional meetings are planned to assist immigrants.

On March 11, Our Lady of Mount Carmel will host a forum from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., when immigration attorneys and officials from the Mexican Consulate will be available.

The Spanish Community Center in Joliet also announced it recently was awarded grant funding and will offer immigration services for the next six months.

Tribune news services contributed.

Alicia Fabbre is a freelance reporter.