In 1986, the San Diego Police Department wisely abandoned its practice of detaining suspected illegal aliens for apprehension by the U.S. Border Patrol.
As former Police Chief Bill Kolender said, the police "are not in the immigration business, and we are not immigration officers."
With the change, San Diego became one of the last major U.S. border city police forces to drop the policy of detaining people just because they are suspected of being undocumented immigrants.
Then-assistant chief Bob Burgreen described the move as "severing the umbilical cord" with the Border Patrol. But now, as chief, he is proposing to reestablish a relationship with immigration authorities.
He has proposed a policy whereby people arrested on suspicion of misdemeanors would be turned over to the Border Patrol if police think they are in the country illegally. There would be no change in the 1986 policy for those stopped for minor "infractions," such as jaywalking. They would not be turned over to the Border Patrol, Burgreen assures.
But he maintains that the problem of crime by illegal aliens is sufficiently serious to merit a new policy on misdemeanors, such as trespassing, assault and minor thefts.
(A recent San Diego Assn. of Governments study found that 12% of those arrested on felony charges in the county in the 1986 fiscal year were illegal aliens. No statistics are kept on misdemeanors.)
The purpose of the policy is to reduce crime, which is hard to argue with. But we question the method, which would treat illegal aliens differently than citizens.
Because the county's jails are so overcrowded, very few misdemeanor suspects are booked. Instead, officers give them a citation with a court date and release them.
Under the proposed policy, if a suspect fits certain criteria, still being developed, the officer will bring him into the police station. If a lieutenant confirms that the criteria have been met, the suspect will be turned over to Border Patrol agents to determine whether the person is undocumented.
Immigration authorities say that, unless the person can post bond, he will be held in a federal detention center--an average of seven days--until a deportation hearing. If the person is deported and reenters the United States illegally, he can then be prosecuted for a felony.
In other words, U.S. citizens arrested for misdemeanors will go free, and illegal aliens will be jailed, because there is more room in federal detention centers than in county jails.
This would seem to violate the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection under the law, regardless of immigration status.
Police essentially will be deciding whether to hold people based on their perceived immigration status, rather than on criteria related to the offense. There is also the opportunity of abuse--the possibility that officers' judgments will be swayed by the color of the suspect's skin.
In addition, civil rights attorneys and others suggest that aliens' rights might be jeopardized if they are asked about their immigration status before receiving Miranda warnings. And the policy could make undocumented aliens who are victims of crime even more reluctant to report the crimes.
Chief Burgreen is to be commended for the way in which he is developing this policy. He has solicited recommendations from Latino groups and the Citizens Advisory Board on Police-Community Relations. And he has cautioned officers about abusing the policy.
But, even with careful criteria and safeguards against abuse, the policy is flawed. It would send a message that the end justifies the means, that unequal treatment is acceptable if it reduces crime. That's a concept our system of law should reject.