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Thinking Out Loud / IMMIGRATION

Equal Treatment for L.A.'s Criminals

May 15, 2005|Carol Platt Liebau | Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political analyst and guest host on KABC radio.

Los Angeles' absurd "sanctuary policy," codified in Special Order 40, prohibits police officers from asking immigration questions. It is a threat to public safety. The next mayor, if he's smart, will push hard to change it.

Prompted by concerns that Salvadoran gangs have established beachheads in Los Angeles, Police Chief William J. Bratton has already proposed guidelines that would permit officers to contact their supervisors, who could check the immigration status of people they believe to be deported felons who have returned to L.A. illegally. Suspects would still enjoy due-process rights; they could be apprehended only with a warrant obtained after federal judicial review. In contrast, U.S. citizens are almost always subject to warrantless arrest.

Activists for illegal immigrants and civil libertarians contend that modifying Special Order 40 would make illegal immigrants reluctant to use city services and to report crimes. They fear that the police, under the pretext of checking immigration status, would use the new policy to harass Latinos generally. They also point to the Rampart scandal in the late 1990s, in which suspects were allegedly turned over to immigration officials by corrupt cops.

Protecting civil liberties is vitally important, but in this instance, it does not trump the need for more effective law enforcement against crimes increasingly committed by illegal immigrants. According to Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, 95% of the hundreds of outstanding homicide warrants (and 60% of outstanding felony warrants) in L.A. are for illegal immigrants. More than half of the city's homicides are gang-related. The National Youth Gang Center, a private group, estimates there are 100,000 gang members in L.A. County, and that illegal immigrants make up a substantial part of these gangs. Of the membership of the notorious 18th Street gang, estimated at 20,000, fully 60% are illegal aliens, according to a 1995 report by the state Department of Justice.

As many as 30,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records are in L.A. County. The Los Angeles Police Department arrests about 2,500 criminally convicted deportees annually. But because of the sanctuary policy, they are arrested only after they have committed other crimes. If officers had the power to arrest previously deported criminals for immigration violations, they could prevent future crimes.

Worries that changing Special Order 40 would make immigrants less trusting of authorities are overblown. There is no evidence that immigrants are aware of the sanctuary policy or that it is a factor in their decisions either to use city services (for which few of them pay, incidentally) or report violent crimes. In fact, it may be more likely that illegal aliens so often fail to report crimes because they fear retaliation from gang members, who are protected by current policy. Even from the perspective of an otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrant, is being "shielded" from potential deportation more important than being protected from rape or murder by known criminals?

And although the possibility of racial profiling and more harassment cannot be dismissed, it's worth noting that the report by the Rampart Independent Review Panel never confirmed allegations that police routinely violated Special Order 40.

Given that 57% of LAPD officers are minorities, a surge in racial profiling and harassment seems unlikely. Because the majority of gang members are Latino, more Latinos may be detained if the sanctuary policy were relaxed, but that's more a reflection of demographics than invidious discrimination.

Ultimately, the most insulting aspect of the criticisms of relaxing the restraints in Special Order 40 is the assumption that cops will engage in wrongdoing if given the opportunity. Abusive or racist behavior by officers cannot be tolerated, but law enforcement policy cannot be driven by the notion that such misconduct is the norm.

The policy "shielding" illegal immigrants from police ignores the new reality of foreign gangs. It should be revised to enable police to protect innocent Angelenos -- legal and not -- from criminals.

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