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Police May Join Hunt for Illegal Migrants

Advocates see a way to boost enforcement, but officers and civil rights groups fear abuses.

November 11, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Trooper Gary Hetzel patrols the highways of this Deep South state like a hunter, scouting the traffic lanes for speeders and reckless drivers, drunks and outlaws on the run.

Now he can chase another kind of quarry: illegal immigrants.

Last month, the Alabama Department of Public Safety became the second police agency in the country authorized to enforce federal immigration laws in an experiment that is heartening to some and disturbing to others.

With more than 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to government figures, and 5,500 federal agents available for enforcement in interior areas beyond the border, advocates of cracking down on illegal migration see more than 600,000 state and local officers as a "force multiplier" that could finally and irrevocably turn the tide.

In Congress, a bill known as the CLEAR Act would transform what until recently has been a low-key experiment with local enforcement of immigration laws into a national crusade along the lines of the war on drugs. By setting up a system of financial penalties and incentives -- including seizure of illegal immigrants' property -- it aims to induce cities and states to take on immigration enforcement.

Immigrant advocates and civil rights groups warn that such a sweeping delegation of federal authority could lead to abuses against those who merely look or sound foreign.

Although many police agencies would welcome additional immigration expertise, local law enforcement is divided about signing up for a vast new mission. The California Police Chiefs Assn. opposes the CLEAR Act, which stands for Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal, concerned that officers would lose the trust of immigrant communities. The National Sheriffs Assn. has endorsed it.

Alabama launched its program Oct. 14, and is still feeling its way. Florida's state police had been the only other participant in the small-scale program run by the federal government for state and local police.

The Los Angeles County and Orange County sheriff's departments are among the agencies considering immigration enforcement training for some specialized officers, as are police in Arizona.

At the Los Angeles Police Department, spokeswoman Sandra Escalante said the department had no plans to become involved in immigration enforcement. Department policy for nearly 25 years has generally prevented officers from questioning people about their immigration status or from turning otherwise law-abiding immigrants over to federal authorities.

"We don't arrest people because of their status," Escalante said.

In Alabama, 21 troopers passed a five-week federal course in the intricacies of immigration law, returning to their regular duties on the roads and in driver's license offices with new skills.

Hetzel, 34, said he became interested in immigration after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He spent much of that day on the phone, trying to find his sister-in-law, who worked at the World Trade Center in Manhattan. She was fortunate to have gone to an appointment outside the office when the attacks occurred, but many of her co-workers were killed.

A year later, on Sept. 11, 2002, the National Guard deployed Hetzel to Afghanistan for more than six months.

"I just have this thing about people who come here to do us harm," he said. "I got this training on the off chance that I might stop one of them and find out they're up to no good."

The odds of collaring a terrorist in a traffic stop in Alabama seem remote, but routine immigration enforcement doesn't appeal to Hetzel.

If he were to stop an otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrant for speeding, he said, "I'd probably just write him his ticket and send him home."

Other policing duties come first, from responding to accidents to enforcing child-seat laws. "I cover five counties," Hetzel said. "I ain't got time."

The troopers' new mission has unnerved Latinos in a state that is experiencing double-digit growth in its immigrant work force. The Mexican Consulate in Atlanta, which covers four Southern states, has set up a phone line for people to report abuses.

"We have concerns that people will be pulled over for driving while Latino," said Isabel Rubio of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, a community group in Birmingham. "I really don't feel like it's the role of any federal law enforcement agency to give its job over to state and local police."

The legal authority of local police to enforce federal immigration laws has been debated.

A central issue is that many immigration violations are civil, not criminal, offenses. For example, overstaying a visa -- an infraction that accounts for 30% to 40% of illegal immigrants in the country -- is a civil matter. Since city police don't collect back taxes for the IRS, they shouldn't round up deportees either, critics say.

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