Chris Welch Illinois Representative

As the Trump Administration continues to ramp up arrests and deportation of undocumented immigrants across the nation, two local state lawmakers have advanced a proposal aimed at creating safe zones for them in public spaces.

Illinois Sen. Don Harmon (D-Oak Park) and Rep. Chris Welch (D-Westchester), who represents parts of River Forest, Forest Park and Maywood, recently received legislative approval for their “Safe Zones Act” and now await approval from Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The proposed bill would direct the state attorney general’s office to establish guidelines for how state law enforcement agents can assist U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in state-funded buildings. Those so-called safe zones include: schools; daycare centers; hospitals; health clinics; emergency and urgent care facilities; nursing homes; group homes; mental health facilities; libraries; courthouses and facilities run by the secretary of state.

The bill was approved in the Illinois Senate in a 31-16 votes and in the House by a vote of 62-53.

Harmon said in a telephone interview that the proposal grew out of the Illinois Trust Act, which was signed into law in 2017, which, among other things, states that “state and local police are not deputized immigration agents and … not expected to expend resources enforcing or complying with federal civil immigration detainers and administrative warrants” and “prohibits state and local police from searching, arresting or detaining a person based solely on citizenship or immigration status or an administrative warrant.”

Harmon said he and other lawmakers have worked with state police and the Illinois Sheriffs Association to mitigate their concerns that the Safe Zones Act could hamper their ability to enforce state laws.

“We began by saying that local law enforcement could not cooperate with federal officers unless they had a warrant in those public places,” Harmon said.

“This bill will make people feel safer in their everyday lives taking their children to school or the doctor,” Harmon said in a press release. “While every immigrant is now a target for deportation, this provides added safety in our communities. Our diverse immigrant history is what defines Illinois, and we need to make the state welcoming for everyone.”

Harmon said in an interview that he “can’t imagine the horror of being separated from a small child at the border as a parent” or “being taken away from a child at the hospital because they’ve been hurt or at a school because they chose to attend a play or a parent-teacher conference.”

“That’s not American. We don’t ask people for their papers. We don’t rip families apart,” he said.

Rep. Chris Welch said that along with the Trust Act, Illinois is leading the nation in sending a signal to immigrants that they are welcomed here.

“Kids should be at their desks learning, not worrying about ICE agents,” he said in a telephone interview.

Welch said his office has never received so many calls as in the days following the election of President Donald Trump. He received reports that children were crying in schools at Proviso West in Hillside and Proviso East in Maywood, over fear that their parents would be deported. 

“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” Welch said. “Those phone calls were horrific and it was purely based on fear.”

Oak Parker Mony Ruiz-Velasco, executive director of the immigrant rights group PASO, which helped convince Oak Park and Forest Park to approve a sanctuary city ordinance in 2017, said in a telephone interview that her organization has recently been working with undocumented immigrants detained by ICE agents in Berwyn, Cicero, Lyons, Stone Park and elsewhere.

Her group has lobbied Springfield for both the Trust Act and the Safe Zones Act.

She noted that ICE and the Department of Homeland Security “has more funding than all other (federal) law-enforcement agencies combined” and operates without “accountability (or) transparency”.

Action must be taken at the state level to protect undocumented immigrants because “Congress has not positioned itself to really address these issues,” she said.