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Mayor Lori Lightfoot Defends Chicago's Sanctuary City Law, After Previously Deported Convict Charged With Sexually Assaulting Toddler

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she's committed to Chicago's status as a "sanctuary city" for immigrants, and brushed off criticism from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, after a convicted felon previously deported to Mexico was charged with sexually assaulting a toddler in the restroom of the McDonald's restaurant in River North.

Christopher Puente, 34, was charged last week with one count of predatory criminal sexual assault, after police say he lured a 3-year-old girl into a bathroom stall and raped her while her father was tending to her brother in the next stall.

ICE announced Friday they had lodged a detainer request with Chicago police in June 2019, after Puente was arrested for theft, but the detainer was not honored. Puente had been deported to Mexico in 2014 over a prior burglary conviction, but tried to get back in five days later, claiming to be a citizen, and later skipped out on a hearing before an immigration judge. He was ordered deported again in 2017 in absentia, according to ICE.

Chicago's "Welcoming City Ordinance" protects undocumented immigrants from being held for immigration authorities, unless they have been convicted of a serious crime or are being sought on a criminal warrant signed by a judge.

"How many more victims must there be before lawmakers realize that sanctuary policies do not protect the innocent?" asked Robert Guadian, director of the Chicago field office for ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations. "Puente should have been in ICE custody last year and removed to his home country. Instead, irresponsible lawmaking allowed him to walk free and prey on our most vulnerable."

Lightfoot accused ICE of playing politics with the Puente case as retaliation after her recent criticism of the agency's aggressive tactics targeting undocumented immigrants. The mayor said she had a pointed conversation with the head of the agency last week, after ICE arrested another immigrant, 34-year-old Julio Torres, in front of his daughter and her classmates earlier this month as he was dropping her off at school.

"If ICE is complaining, then they should do their job better, and they shouldn't do things that are traumatizing young children. That's not acceptable, and I was very clear and blunt about that. How is that right?" Lightfoot said.

The mayor said, as a former federal prosecutor, she is familiar with surveillance tactics, and knows ICE agents could have arrested him without his daughter and other children present.

"There are many points along the way that they could have, if this person had a valid warrant signed by a judge, that they could have arrested him. They chose to do it at a school, after he dropped off his daughter, in view of the daughter and all the other children and parents who were out there. That's just unnecessary, and I'm going to push back against that every single time," Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot said Chicago police need to maintain a good relationship with the communities they serve, and shouldn't be used as a tool for strict enforcement of immigration laws. Earlier this month, she accused the Trump administration of bullying and scare tactics, after learning ICE would be deploying SWAT-like tactical teams to sanctuary cities to assist with immigration-related arrests.

"They're critical because we have said very clearly we're a welcoming city, we're a sanctuary city. The Chicago Police Department will not cooperate with ICE on any immigration-related business, and that's affected their ability to conduct immigration raids across the city, but that's exactly our intention," Lightfoot said. "We have to make sure that our police department is seen as a legitimate force in all communities, and we cannot do that if we're participating in raids with a weaponized and politicized ICE. We're not doing that in Chicago."

The mayor did not directly address the circumstances of Puente's case, but insisted, "we are doing what's necessary to keep our residents safe all the time, 24/7."

"If ICE is complaining, then they should do their job better, and they shouldn't do things that are traumatizing young children. That's not acceptable, and I was very clear and blunt about that. How is that right?"

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