To help subdue the fears of illegal immigrants who are crime victims or witnesses, D.C. police Chief Charles H. Ramsey recently reaffirmed the department's policy barring officers from asking people about their citizenship status.
"Officers are strictly prohibited from making inquires into citizenship or residency status for the purpose of determining whether an individual has violated the civil immigration laws or for the purpose of enforcing those laws," Ramsey said in a statement earlier this month.
"If some of our residents are reluctant to interact with the police, because they fear we are there to enforce civil immigration laws, then all hopes for partnership and cooperation are lost, and what really suffers most is the safety of the entire community."
Ramsey said the policy was being reaffirmed because many people are unaware of it or misunderstand it. "In conversations with the Latino community, we agreed to keep this policy at the forefront and keep reminding people of the importance of it," he said.
Ramsey said police will continue to pursue suspects regardless of citizenship and immigration status. "If someone is violating the law and they're undocumented, we will report them to the INS, but we can only prosecute the criminal charges, and we let the INS do what they want about the immigration issues," he said.
Police spokesman Enrique Rivera said Hispanics particularly "are targeted by criminals, especially on days in which they are paid."
Immigration interest groups praised Ramsey's policy.
Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research for the National Council of La Raza, said everyone, not just undocumented people, benefits from it. "All of us are less safe when people don't come forward to be witnesses or report crime" because they are in the country illegally, she said. "I'm glad the MPD has reaffirmed this policy, and I hope they will continue to abide by it."
Other police departments in the region that serve areas with high immigrant populations have similar policies.
"You don't have to be a citizen to be a victim. We want people to come forward without fear," said Officer Richard Henry, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Police Department. "Our policy is not to ask a person's resident status, and even if we did, they don't have to tell us."
Julia Gilroy, public information officer for the Montgomery County police, said its policy is similar to that of the District and Fairfax. "If we find out they're committing a crime, we do notify federal officials," she said, "but we don't enforce the immigration law, only the criminal charges."