In yesterday's briefing on the sniper investigation, Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose made a special plea to immigrants who might have witnessed shootings to come forward. He is right to ask. Many of the shootings have taken place in areas with substantial immigrant populations, and immigrants have been among the sniper's victims. We must create an environment where everyone with information is encouraged to cooperate with authorities.

We fear, however, that a variety of factors have undermined the message Chief Moose tried to communicate. This year, Attorney General John D. Ashcroft overturned decades of precedent and encouraged local police to engage in immigration law enforcement. The latest example of this policy horrified immigrants, who watched along with the rest of us as two immigrant men, reportedly undocumented, were apprehended in suburban Richmond, turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and placed in deportation proceedings. When it became clear they had nothing to do with the sniper, the media quickly declared a "false alarm" and moved on. But the fact that local police turned over to the INS two men who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time was not lost on immigrants.

The undocumented are not the only immigrants who fear entanglements with the INS. Dramatic changes in Justice Department policy toward all immigrants since Sept. 11, 2001, have sent a similar chill through the legal immigrant community. For example, the department recently announced its intention to vigorously enforce obscure provisions of the law that require immigrants to report address changes to the INS. The new policy was immediately used against an otherwise law-abiding legal resident retroactively: He was punished for not having sent in a form when he moved several years ago, at a time when the INS was openly not enforcing this law. This sent a message to millions of legal residents that the INS is looking for excuses to go after them.

Chief Moose and his colleagues desperately need and deserve the cooperation of all area residents. However, the authorities need to understand that building confidence requires undoing enormous damage already done to immigrants' confidence in the police. It will take more than vague assurances to convince frightened immigrants that an investigation that includes more than a dozen state and federal law enforcement agencies, and which has already resulted in deportation proceedings against two men not connected to the case, will be safe.



National Council of La Raza