Many Officials Reluctant to Help Arrest Immigrants

Mayor John Cook says
Mayor John Cook says "El Paso is the second-safest city in America." (By J. Michael Short -- Associated Press)
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008

Although law enforcement agencies in Prince William and Frederick counties have agreed to help federal authorities enforce immigration laws, officials in many other parts of the country remain reluctant to do so, saying they fear losing the trust of immigrant communities and worry about being accused of racial profiling.

Despite a nationwide clamor against illegal immigration, only 55 of more than 18,000 police and law enforcement agencies across the country have signed agreements to coordinate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Although they face public and political pressure to crack down on illegal immigrants, officials say such efforts can backfire by making immigrants reluctant to report crimes, exposing departments to lawsuits, and putting local police officers in confusing and dangerous situations that can lead to mistakes and abuse.

El Paso's mayor, John Cook, described his mostly Hispanic city on the Mexican border as "the second-safest city in America," in part because it stresses community police involvement. While recognizing that illegal immigration is a crime, he said he is also worried about a growing public perception that immigrants are criminals.

"There is a danger," he said. "Once people don't trust a police officer in immigrant communities, they become communities that foster crime, where people won't report domestic violence or the theft of a TV. If people feel they are under threat of being deported, they become silent. There has to be a delicate balance."

Houston's police chief, Harold Hurtt, said that the city has been labeled a "sanctuary" for illegal immigrants by some conservative commentators but that his department has focused on catching those who commit other crimes. He said it is extremely difficult to track down illegal immigrants without infringing on the rights of others, especially in minority and ethnic communities with many legal immigrants.

Hurtt posed a hypothetical case in which "your wife runs a red light on her way to the store" and has forgotten her driver's license. She is detained and booked, and her immigration status is checked. "Can you imagine doing that to every resident?" Hurtt asked an audience of several hundred police and local officials at a conference on immigration policing and civil liberties this week in the District. "There is a moral issue here. We are here to provide not only law enforcement, but justice."

Most of the agencies that have agreed to work with ICE are in the Southeast, including North Carolina, Georgia and Arkansas, where mostly non-Hispanic communities have been dramatically changed by influxes of immigrants, many of them illegal Mexicans and Central Americans, seeking work at farms, mills and slaughterhouses.

Many of the local cooperating agencies are overseen by county sheriffs, who are elected and run regional jails, rather than city police departments with appointed chiefs.

The Police Foundation, a private national group that sponsored the conference, held four focus groups with law enforcement and other officials in Kansas, Texas and Florida. Anita Khashu, a foundation consultant, said three of the four groups decided that immigration enforcement should remain "solely a federal responsibility."

James Pendergraph, director of the office of state and local coordination for ICE, told conference participants that his agency is eager to form more local partnerships. He said that ICE does not seek to intimidate immigrants and that only those involved in criminal activity are likely to face arrest.

"Some people talk of fears of terrorizing immigrant communities, but if you're not involved in criminal activity, you'll probably never come in contact with these programs," Pendergraph said. "The media make it seem like if you are out mowing your grass, we'll snatch you from your yard and arrest and deport you. That is just not the case."

Several scholars at the meeting expressed concerns about public perceptions that illegal immigrants are linked with high crime. Rubén Rumbaut of the University of California at Irvine said crime rates across the country have steadily declined as immigration rates have increased. His research showed that the percentage of foreign-born men in U.S. jails and prisons is far lower than that of African Americans and in some cases close to the level of native-born whites.

Other legal experts and advocates at the meeting said that immigration law is increasingly being "criminalized" to prosecute people who have crossed the border to find work, especially by charging them with identity fraud, and that civil immigration warrants are being used like criminal warrants, even though they do not carry the same powers, such as the right to enter a home without permission.

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