Correction to This Article
This article about Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger's criticism of a new Arizona immigration law incorrectly said that the law requires police to check the immigration status of people they come in contact with if officers suspect they are in the country illegally. That description was based on an earlier version of the bill, which was amended to raise the threshold. As the law now reads, police are to ask such questions after they have stopped or detained someone for a possible offense unrelated to immigration. Also, officers are not required to make the inquiries if they think doing so would hinder an investigation.

Immigrant checks could hush witnesses, Montgomery police chief says

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 17, 2010

Outside a Wheaton nightclub last month, police say, a middle-aged Hispanic man watched a driver ram his Toyota Camry into the side of a Honda Accord, get out, stab one of the Accord passengers nearly to death, get back into his Camry and leave. The witness wrote down the Camry's license plate number, waited for police and passed along the information.

What does that have to do with the nationwide debate over Arizona's tough new immigration law? More than you might think.

The help provided by the witness, said Montgomery County's police chief, is just the kind of cooperation that could vanish if local police officers start aggressively enforcing immigration laws. And Chief J. Thomas Manger is emerging as a national voice in the debate over immigration laws and policing.

"I understand why a lot of folks in Arizona thought this was the solution," said Manger, who is scheduled to speak at a news conference Monday as the representative of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. "But I just know from a police chief's perspective, there can easily be as many negative consequences."

Not everyone agrees with Manger, nationally or in Montgomery.

"It's unfortunate that he has become a poster child for law enforcement and how to handle illegal immigration," said Brad Botwin, director of the anti-illegal immigration group Help Save Maryland. Manger's approach, which relies heavily on federal agents, "doesn't do nearly enough," Botwin said.

Under the Arizona law, scheduled to take effect in July, police officers would have to ask about the status of people they come into contact with whom they suspect could be in the country illegally. At least 10 other states are considering similar measures, according to the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, a group opposed to the new law.

The question of how far local police should go on immigration isn't new to the Washington area. The issue surfaced in Montgomery in 2008 and last year, when suspects with questionable immigration statuses were arrested in connection with a series of homicides.

One case that grabbed attention was the Nov. 1, 2008, slaying of a 14-year-old honor student aboard a commuter bus.

Two of the men convicted in that case -- Gilmar L. Romero and Hector M. Hernandez -- were illegal immigrants whose statuses had gone undetected during previous arrests in the county, according to police.

In response, Manger instituted a purposely restrained new policy. When officers arrest people in a violent crime or handgun crime, they now refer them to immigration agents. But officers are forbidden from asking people they come into contact with for lesser offenses about their immigration status.

Manger said it's partly a question of staffing.

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