The question is taboo for local law enforcement in many cities: Are you a U.S. citizen?
Chicago and other cities have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, adopting ordinances that prohibit local police from asking residents about their immigration status during routine activities, such as traffic stops.
But as the debate over immigration reform has heightened, so have federal efforts to capture and remove undocumented immigrants _ even in sanctuary cities.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed a record 187,513 undocumented immigrants from the country in 2006, a 10 percent increase from the previous year, the agency reported.
In fiscal year 2006, ICE recorded about 6,900 deportations for a six-state region that includes Illinois, said Gail Montenegro, a Chicago-based ICE spokeswoman. That figure was up from 6,375 in 2005 and 6,300 in 2004. Montenegro could provide no figures on how many undocumented immigrants have come into federal custody after being stopped by local police.
"Our ultimate goal is deportation, so (those) statistics are what we have available," she said. "I would say they've been steadily increasing."
But what role local police should play in helping federal authorities arrest an increasing number of undocumented immigrants has become a point of debate.
Some communities have become willing partners with ICE, seeking training that allows them to act on behalf of federal immigration authorities. Others say local police simply do not have the resources to enforce federal immigration law.
Still others take it a step further and instruct police to turn a blind eye as long as an immigrant is not committing a crime.
Cook County, Illinois _ with an estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrants _ could become the latest sanctuary. The County Board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a resolution that would direct the sheriff's department not to help investigate anyone's citizenship or immigration status unless it involves a crime unrelated to that status. While Chicago has been a sanctuary since 1989, those protections do not extend to the rest of Cook County.
"Hard-working immigrants and their families should feel safe and welcome in Cook County," said Roberto Maldonado, a commissioner whose district includes a church where an undocumented Mexican woman has been sheltered while defying a federal deportation order.
"We must do what we can to provide the environment necessary to keep our families united," he said in a written statement. "Immigrants are an asset to our economy, our culture and our future in Cook County.
Other communities have taken a similar stance. Officials in Cambridge, Massachusetts _ calling for federal immigration reform _ declared the city a sanctuary last year, updating a designation it first took in 1985. Houston, Los Angeles and Phoenix also are among cities that have declared immigrant sanctuaries.
But sanctuary cities are coming under increasing fire from opponents who say the measures interfere with federal law enforcement and promote criminal behavior.
Randy Pullen, chairman of the Republican Party in Arizona, has helped organize a movement to repeal Phoenix's sanctuary measure, which he contends sends a message that it is OK to break the law and has created an environment that allows gang members and crime to flourish.
"There is a big portion of our crime problem that revolves around illegal immigration," Pullen said. "I'm not saying the typical immigrant is here to steal or commit crimes _ many of them are here to work _ but because we create this illicit group of people in our country, we have this illegal activity that revolves around them."
In Los Angeles, one of America's oldest sanctuary policies, known as "Special Order 40," is being challenged in court by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch.
"In my view, these things seem to be contrary to federal law ... It seems fairly obvious," said Paul Ofranedes, director of litigation for Judicial Watch, which also has sued Chicago for information about the police department's procedures for dealing with undocumented immigrants.
Regardless of a city's policy, ICE officials say they are perfectly willing to act on their own _ even checking the inmate rolls at county jails _ to look for illegal immigrants. But they say they are getting cooperation from police, even in sanctuary cities.
Technicians at ICE's Law Enforcement Support Center responded to more than 661,000 electronic queries from federal, state and local police officers in fiscal year 2006, according to data provided by ICE.
California activist Enrique Morones says immigrants are getting nervous.
An increasing number of callers to his radio show are wondering what their rights are during encounters with police. More and more listeners who live in sanctuary cities in southern California, such as San Diego, are complaining about police harassment, he said.
"There has been some bending of the rules," Morones said. "Some cities are not following those procedures."
Chicago attorney Ashley Dwarsky said one of his clients, a Polish national, spent seven months in detention after he was pulled over for using a cell phone while driving on Chicago's northwest side. Police somehow discovered a 13-year-old deportation order, he said.
"It was an absolutely routine traffic stop," Dwarsky said. "And they handed him over to (ICE) within 30 minutes. It shows how life can change in the blink of an eye."
Morones believes sanctuary ordinances will continue to play an important role until meaningful immigration reform is passed by Congress, but said current sanctuary measures should be expanded.
He said immigrants could become reluctant to report crimes out of fear local police are collaborating with federal immigration authorities.
"The real criminals are going to get away because no one is going to come forward and say that guy is a child molester, or that guy is going to beat his wife," Morones said. "There are always going to be exceptions where you may find a car loaded with 30 or 40 people, but that should be the exception not the rule."