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Should cops be la migra?

Most U.S. police chiefs don't want the job of enforcing immigration laws.

April 20, 2008|Monica Varsanyi | Monica Varsanyi is an assistant professor of the School of Justice and Social Inquiry at Arizona State University.

At the heart of the debate over whether the Los Angeles Police Department's Special Order 40 should be revised is a call for closer cooperation between cops on the street and federal immigration authorities. Since 1979, when the policy went into effect, L.A. police officers have purposely stayed clear of enforcing immigration law. The reason seems obvious: In a city with growing immigrant populations, especially Latino, noncitizens must feel confident that they can come forward and inform cops when a crime is committed, or act as witnesses, without fear of deportation.

But the murder of Jamiel Shaw II, a promising college-bound football star, allegedly by an illegal immigrant with ties to a gang, has intensified demands that the order be revised to allow L.A. police officers to become more of an arm of la migra. The modification proposed earlier this month by City Councilman Dennis Zine would require police to investigate the immigration status of a known gang member suspected of committing a crime, and if the person is here illegally, to report the information to federal authorities.

This change would probably lead to the capture and deportation of more "criminal aliens." But according to a national survey that I and three colleagues conducted, relatively few police chiefs in the nation are inclined to assume the role of immigration enforcer. The main reason is that they fear it would make all city residents -- citizens and noncitizens alike -- less safe.

A law passed by Congress in 1996 gives state and local police the option to take on what has traditionally been a federal responsibility -- investigating the immigration status of individuals and arresting them if they are in the United States illegally. Under the program, dubbed "287(g)" for its U.S. code, state and local law enforcement agencies enter into a formal agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow some of their officers, after appropriate training, to add immigration enforcement to their duties. According to ICE, 41 agencies have signed up so far, among them the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which screens the immigrant status of inmates in county jail.

As part of a research project exploring the growing involvement of local and state police in immigration enforcement, we surveyed police chiefs in the 450 largest U.S. cities (populations greater than 60,000). Regardless of whether they have a formal agreement with the federal agency, 75% of the chiefs who responded reported that their departments contact ICE after learning that a criminal suspect may be here illegally. But only 3% said their departments have signed up with the federal agency to allow their officers to ask individuals about their immigration status during such routine contacts as traffic stops and domestic disturbance calls.

Why have so few police chiefs signed a 287(g) agreement? More than 70% of the chiefs said immigration enforcement was the responsibility of the federal government. Of those who considered entering into a formal agreement with ICE but didn't, nearly 66% stated that training their officers to do immigration enforcement would be too expensive and would divert already limited resources from regular policing duties. And about 60% of the chiefs said community opposition figured in their decision.

Most important, nearly three of four chiefs who had considered but decided against training their officers to do immigration duty did so out of a concern that it would decrease overall public safety because undocumented residents, fearing deportation, would be less likely to contact the police if they were a victim of, or witness to, a crime.

Getting police officers involved in immigration enforcement also puts them in the tricky position of having to make quick judgments about suspects' legal status that are often based on their skin color or accent, which exposes departments to potential costly litigation stemming from charges of racial profiling.

The LAPD's reluctance to make it easier to ask individuals about their immigration status before arrest is in keeping with the views of the overwhelming majority of the police chiefs we surveyed. Allowing L.A. officers to check the immigration status of known gang members before arrest would certainly take some of them off the streets. But as the chiefs in our surveyed cities worried, becoming more of an arm of ICE would likely send a chill through immigrant communities, decrease trust between police and vulnerable residents and sacrifice overall public safety.

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