Friend or Foe?

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to
Friday, July 6, 2007; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Momentum to deputize local police as immigration agents across the United States grew after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But law enforcement officers have been reluctant to oblige. They are concerned that taking on that role would both alienate immigrant communities -- where criminals or terrorists can gain a foothold or simply find a convenient hideout -- and undermine police obligations to ensure public safety.

Several jurisdictions, in fact, prevented their officers from enforcing federal immigration laws. By mid-2004, according to the National Immigration Law Center, more than 50 localities, including some of the country's largest cities, had enacted laws, resolutions or policies limiting such activity.

Now that the U.S. Senate has killed comprehensive immigration reform, the fate of 12 million illegal immigrants in this country remains in limbo. What seems absolutely certain is that public pressure will push local, county and state authorities to address what the federal government has failed to.

It is possible that faced with increased public scrutiny and frustration with a broken immigration system, more communities will seek to reverse the trend against localized immigration enforcement. That's what happened earlier this year in Virginia Beach, Va., where local police officers became able to ask non-felony suspects about their immigration status. The change occurred after a drunk driver, in the country illegally, hit and killed two teenagers.

In Hightstown, N.J., officials have taken a different tack. After a series of raids by federal immigration agents in 2004, local authorities adopted measures to regain the trust of the immigrant community. Without the immigrants, most of them from Ecuador, the town "would have a heck of a time" functioning, Hightstown's mayor told The Washington Post. Now, immigrants in Hightstown no longer seem reluctant to report crimes or seek assistance from authorities. One illegal immigrant at the apartment complex where the raids took place even turned to police for help in placing a family member in alcohol rehabilitation.

Nevertheless, during the last five years, Florida, Arizona, Alabama and 12 counties scattered throughout the nation have signed agreements with the federal government to train some of their police officers to enforce immigration laws. In his budget for the next fiscal year, President Bush asked for $26.4 million, a fivefold increase over the current year, to train and equip 250 state and local law enforcement officers.

During the debate in the Senate last week, Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., conditioned his support for the comprehensive reform bill upon consideration of his amendment allowing police to question people on their immigration status, even as some of his state's top police chiefs opposed the measure. The amendment was barely defeated, 49-48, in a first vote in May.

The federal government has been authorized to delegate immigration law enforcement to local and state police since 1996, when the Republican-controlled Congress amended the Immigration and Nationality Act. But the Clinton administration, which opposed the measure, managed to delay its implementation for four years. By the time President Clinton left office, no jurisdiction had signed any such agreement.

Salt Lake City, the first to express interest in participating, backed out after a long consultation process with the community -- encouraged by Clinton officials -- that led the city council and the police to determine that complex immigration laws are difficult to enforce.

Doris Meissner, commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Clinton years, predicted in an interview that the likely result from recent increased public pressure will be that police departments in small- and medium-sized communities will join in the enforcement effort while departments in large cities will remain uninterested, sufficiently sophisticated to "recognize what the hazards are in getting involved."

Sometimes it is the community that demands the police get involved, as in Virginia Beach. Anti-illegal-immigration activists, including national television personalities, insisted that if police there had helped start deportation proceedings against the driver, who had been arrested previously for drunk driving, the two teenagers would be alive today.

In Hightstown, the community took the opposite approach. It was the town's way of rebuking the anti-immigration forces who, in the current immigration turmoil, are fishing for anything to exacerbate fear, frustration and intolerance.

The country needs for immigrants to trust authorities -- as they do now in Hightstown. But because of the failure of immigration reform at the federal level, it is ever more unclear what will happen if those same immigrants step into another county.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is

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