In the late 1980s police in Orange County began making mass arrests of day laborers suspected of being illegal immigrants. Last week a Times article revealed that at least eight police departments had turned over more than 4,000 suspected illegal residents to INS officials in the last two years. For more than a decade, the line between police cooperating with the INS and police actually doing the work of federal immigration officials has been in contention in Orange County. Some law enforcement agencies still seem to have trouble grasping the distinction in dealing with illegal immigrants.
Protecting our nation's borders and apprehending illegal immigrants is a federal function best left to immigration officers trained in legal issues that are often complex. The best policy is for local police to stick to local law enforcement, and to let the INS apprehend illegal residents as they are processed through the legal system after being apprehended for criminal activity.
But last year, according to U.S. Border Patrol records, the suspected illegal immigrants those eight county police departments turned over to the INS checkpoint in San Clemente, many of whom were driven directly there by police, accounted for 40% of people processed in San Clemente. The departments that acknowledged the turn-overs to INS were Buena Park, Huntington Beach, Laguna Beach, La Habra, Newport Beach, Orange, Santa Ana, and Tustin.
History shows that police effort is better spent on local enforcement rather than taking so much time trying to deal with illegal immigration. In the 1980s, police sweeps of day laborers who massed on street corners or near stores and strip malls looking for work were a routine operation in many cities. Laws were passed in some cities banning solicitation of work from city streets and making it a crime to be in some areas with the intent to seek work. Costa Mesa even went so far as adopting an ordinance withholding federal grant money from any community program that provided aid to illegal residents. The legally questionable law was watered down and never enforced.
In Orange, hundreds were arrested in a series of sweeps, including a controversial one in 1991 in which the city took an active part and even used city code enforcement officers to help federal INS agents gain entry to apartments of suspected illegal residents. Orange's historic ardor against illegal residents hasn't seemed to cool over the years. Border Patrol agents say Orange police drop off immigrants more than any other police agency.
In 1988, Costa Mesa sought to move day laborers off the streets by establishing the county's first hiring hall. Those sanctioned meeting places for day laborers and workers, which also were established in other cities including Laguna Beach, Orange and Brea, helped but are no cure-all.
Today, most law enforcement agencies have a more enlightened and realistic approach in dealing with suspected illegal immigrants. They recognize the benefits of community policing and the value of making residents, especially in the minority communities, part of the cooperative effort to reduce crime, rather than driving a wedge between them and a Latino community that makes up about 30% of the county population.
Anaheim realized that last month when the City Council rejected an effort from the same self-appointed immigration watchdog group that drafted the legally flawed Proposition 187 in 1994. It sought to have the council seek federal approval to enable police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants.
Leaving immigration issues up to the trained, experienced federal officers is far preferable to people being detained by local police merely because they "look" illegal. There is no point in having them hauled down to San Clemente to INS agents only to find that they are U.S. citizens or legal residents. An INS official has acknowledged such incidents.
Federal immigration officials prefer that other agencies stick to prosecuting suspects, and most police agencies are happy to follow that policy. All should do so.
If local police are viewed as extensions of the immigration service, it can only make residents less willing to report crimes or serve as witnesses. This can erode the trust that police have worked to build in the county's growing minority community.