The Justice Department has drawn up new guidelines, encouraging local and state law enforcement officials to assist in the arrest and detention of suspected illegal aliens, which appear to run counter to the spirit of a 1978 directive that Hispanic leaders had supported in an effort to curb alleged abuses.
The new directive, signed by Attorney General William French Smith on Feb. 10, is to be issued this week to some 3,300 investigators and border guards in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
It affirms a policy of cooperation between INS and local authorities in determining if persons arrested for non-immigration offenses are also illegal aliens, and reaffirms the value of joint operations by INS and the local agencies.
INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson said yesterday that the directive was designed primarily to nullify a June 23, 1978 order by then-Attorney General Griffin B. Bell that Nelson said many local officials had read as a signal to leave immigration matters to INS.
"There was a perception that there be a hands-off deal," Nelson said. "We're saying that perception should, in fact, be reversed."
Before the 1978 directive, Hispanic groups had complained that many local law enforcement authorities were using suspected violations of immigration law, over which the officials had no real authority, as reasons for detaining individuals who looked Hispanic or foreign. Hispanic leaders renewed those complaints yesterday.
Antonia Hernandez, director of the Washington office of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that she was particularly upset because the issue of whether persons can be detained in local jails for alleged immigration matters is before a federal court in California.
Smith and Nelson were among the witnesses who appeared yesterday before a Senate subcommittee that is considering major revisions of the nation's immigration laws