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MICHELE NORRIS, host: One of the nation's largest jails in Cook County, Illinois, is now refusing to hold inmates any longer than it has to, even when requested to do so by federal immigration officials. The county changed its policy despite the fact that these extended jail stay holds sometimes help officials deport dangerous illegal immigrants.

And Chip Mitchell of member station WBEZ in Chicago reports that other counties may soon follow suit.

CHIP MITCHELL: Local jails routinely hold inmates up to two business days beyond what their criminal cases require. That's after the jails receive requests known as detainers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency known as ICE. The detainers give ICE time to pick up the inmates for possible deportation.

In Illinois, Cook County Jail this year turned over 721 inmates named on ICE detainers, people like Carlos Torres's father. Torres says his father is a Mexican native with an expired green card and...

CARLOS TORRES: He's had a burglary on his record once, so that would make him more likely to get deported.

MITCHELL: Torres's father went to jail last month after police found narcotics in a car he was riding in. ICE found out he was in jail and put a detainer on him, but a new Cook County ordinance prevents the jail from complying with those detainers, so Torres says his father has a better chance of walking free after his court appearance tomorrow.

TORRES: It's like a godsend.

MITCHELL: The ordinance requires the jail to release inmates wanted by ICE unless the federal government agrees in advance to pay for the extended confinement, something federal officials say they don't do.

County board commissioners who voted for the measure bring up issues beyond the cost. They say holding inmates for ICE violates due process rights and erodes community trust in local police.

The ordinance passed last week and the jail has already released 15 inmates wanted by immigration authorities. The measure is especially popular in heavily Latino districts, like Democrat Jesus Garcia's on Chicago's southwest side.

JESUS GARCIA: You have many localities and state legislators trying to do immigration policy. We're not best equipped to do this.

MITCHELL: But Garcia says local governments are stuck with the job until Congress overhauls the nation's immigration laws.

Cook County may have some cover from a federal court ruling in Indiana. The ruling calls compliance with the detainers voluntary. Still, county board Republican Timothy Schneider is uncomfortable with ignoring the federal government's requests.

TIMOTHY SCHNEIDER: Under this ordinance, gang bangers and people involved in drug dealing, sex trafficking and criminal sexual assault, they'll be released out in our communities.

MITCHELL: ICE spokesman Greg Palmore says preventing his agency from deporting inmates just doesn't make sense.

GREG PALMORE: Jurisdictions who ignore detainers bear the risk of allowing an individual back into the public domain before they were thoroughly vetted.

MITCHELL: ICE isn't saying whether it'll take Cook County to court to compel compliance with detainers. Without a court ruling on ICE's side, the agency may see other jurisdictions taking a similar stand.

Juniper Downs is lead deputy counsel for Santa Clara County in California.

JUNIPER DOWNS: For a long time, we felt like we were in this alone and Cook County's bold policy may affect the direction of the policy we develop.

MITCHELL: Over the last year, at least three counties have limited the sorts of inmates they'll hold for immigration officials. So far, Cook County is the only jurisdiction openly disregarding all immigration detainers.

For NPR News, I'm Chip Mitchell in Chicago.

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