The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Rights Groups Join Fight Over L.A. Copsâ€TM Immigrant Relations

by Michelle Chen

Sept. 22, 2006 – In a legal battle against the Los Angeles Police Department’s policy toward immigrants, a California court has routed a conservative group’s effort to keep immigrant-rights advocates out of the courtroom.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu allowed several community groups to participate in the case, overriding the objections of Judicial Watch, the conservative government-watchdog organization that brought the suit.

Judicial Watch is seeking to invalidate the LAPD’s policy of barring officers from investigating people’s immigration status in their regular operations. In practice, these guidelines restrict officers from directly enforcing immigration law and collaborating with federal immigration authorities in routine police work. Carried out under a 1979 mandate known as Special Order 40, the policy aims to foster cooperation between law enforcement and immigrant communities.

Judicial Watch sued the LAPD in May on behalf of Los Angeles resident Harold Sturgeon, contending that Special Order 40 violated his rights as a taxpayer and impeded efforts to fight crimes perpetrated by undocumented immigrants. The group says the goal of the lawsuit is not to compel police to enforce immigration laws, but to establish officers’ right to "communicate freely and openly with federal immigration officials."

In response, several community groups involved in immigrant issues, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, filed a motion to intervene in the suit as interested parties.

The organizations include the anti-domestic-violence group Break the Cycle, the Latino day-laborer groups Los Jornaleros and El Comité de Jornaleros, and the community-education and activist organization El Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California.

The ACLU says that although the suit targeted the LAPD, the groups and communities affected by Special Order 40 had a stake in keeping immigration status shielded from police purview.

"The judge recognized... that their voice needs to be heard in this case," ACLU staff attorney Nora Preciado told The NewStandard after the ruling.

In its brief opposing the motion to intervene, however, Judicial Watch argued that the interveners were not legally entitled to an opportunity to voice their perspective in court, claiming that the groups’ concerns about potential changes in police practices were "too speculative" to enable them to intervene in the suit.

Judicial Watch stated: "Assisting undocumented aliens to remain undetected by federal immigration officials and helping [them] secure unlawful employment do not constitute proper, lawful interests. [The groups] should not be allowed to use this court and its process to help undocumented aliens violate the law."

But to supporters of Special Order 40, the case centers not on immigrants’ desire for legal protections, but rather, a public-welfare issue affecting the entire city. Without the policy, they argue, immigrants would be much more reluctant to report incidents of crime or come forward as witnesses, for fear of exposing themselves to immigration-related charges.

In a statement announcing the ACLU’s filing last month, Jessica Aranoff, executive director of Break the Cycle, argued that while domestic-abuse survivors are typically terrified of reporting abuse under any circumstances, in households with undocumented immigrants, "the fear is compounded by the chance that they or someone they love could be deported."

Preciado of the ACLU warned that if the court peeled back Special Order 40’s legal blinders, even if police were not obligated to act on their new powers, whatever trust remains in an already-marginalized population would be shattered.

"Whether they do actually go out and start questioning whoever they run into about their immigration status or not," Preciado said, "the harm is going to be done to the community… because now you've alienated this entire segment of the population from the perspective of law enforcement."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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