Police Chiefs Wary of Immigration Role
Published: March 3, 2011
As many state legislatures consider laws to expand the role of local police departments in immigration control, police chiefs across the country say they are reluctant to take on these tasks and want clear lines drawn between local crime-fighting and federal immigration enforcement, according to a new report by a police research group.
Dozens of police department commanders who participated in the report recommended that local officers should be explicitly prohibited from arresting people solely because of their immigration status, and should have orders to protect victims and witnesses regardless of that status.
The report, issued on Thursday by the Police Executive Research Forum, cites worries among police chiefs that if they are pulled into immigration enforcement, a job that was limited until recently to federal agents, their ties to immigrant communities will be eroded, with the result that crimes would not be reported and witnesses would be afraid to cooperate in investigations.
While police chiefs have spoken out against efforts to increase their immigration role in cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, which have been embroiled in debates on the issue, the report makes clear how widespread the concerns are among commanders. Top officers from Salt Lake City, Topeka, Kan., Elgin and Peoria, Ill., Framingham, Mass., and Miami were among the chiefs and sheriffs supporting the recommendations in the report.
Arizona has gone furthest among the states to authorize local police departments to participate in an immigration crackdown, with a law passed last April. It ordered officers to question anyone they stopped about immigration status based on a “reasonable suspicion” that the person was an illegal immigrant. The Obama administration sued Arizona over the statute and federal courts have suspended its central provisions.
Despite the federal challenge in Arizona, similar bills have been introduced this year in at least 19 state legislatures. They have advanced through some stage of approval in Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina and Nebraska.
The Police Executive Research Forum, based in Washington, provides policy research to the chiefs of the country’s largest law enforcement agencies. Its report started with recommendations that police chiefs initially made at a meeting in Phoenix in July 2009. The researchers then looked more closely at six cities where police chiefs became embattled because of immigration disputes in their communities.
While local police officers generally have not been authorized to enforce federal immigration law, the chiefs recommended that arrests based only on immigration status be prohibited by order. They said departments should reinforce policies that civil rights must be protected regardless of a person’s immigration status.
The chiefs called on federal immigration authorities to separate out criminal warrants from civil immigration warrants, which are not based on crimes, in law enforcement databases that police routinely use to check backgrounds of people they arrest.
“I’m trying to avoid my police officers getting into the immigration enforcement business,” J. Thomas Manger, the police chief of Montgomery County, Md., said in an interview Thursday. “It’s counter to my mission,” said Chief Manger, one of the commanders whose role in an immigration debate was highlighted in the report.
He said one of his biggest efforts was to gain the trust of immigrant communities in the county. “If folks think for one second that if I report I was assaulted, the police will deport me, there will be an increase in unreported crime and people won’t testify,” he said.Chief Manger said he would not advocate any policy that would lessen enforcement against immigrants who committed crimes. Montgomery County “is not a sanctuary jurisdiction by any means,” he said. “If there are criminal warrants, we lock them up as quick as we find them.”