June 28, 2006 – Massachusetts and Houston, Texas are currently considering proposals to empower local police officers to enforce federal immigration law, but immigrant advocates and some police say the proposed initiatives would strain already problematic relationships between police officers and immigrant communities.
Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is negotiating with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to allow his state troopers to check the immigration status of drivers while patrolling roadways, regardless of whether they have committed a crime, Romney spokesperson Eric Fehrnstrom said.
State troopers can receive training on immigration enforcement under a provision in the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1996. Police agencies in Alabama, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina and California already have established partnerships with ICE.
â€œWeâ€™re not going to round them up,â€� said Eric Dowdell, an Alabama state trooper, referring to undocumented immigrants. Dowdell received instruction on immigration-law enforcement last November. Dowdell told The NewStandard that after taking the ICE training, he can now detain any undocumented immigrant he comes across, rather than contact federal authorities.
â€œIt could be during a routine [traffic] stop,â€� he said. â€œWeâ€™ll try to obtain their identity and stop them that way.â€�
Fehrnstrom said Romneyâ€™s proposal would also help to enforce immigration law. â€œIn the case of immigration, our laws are being broken every day,â€� he said. He insisted the proposed arrangement would not increase the troopersâ€™ responsibility as officers â€œThey would detain immigration offenders only if they encounter them in their law-enforcement activity.â€�
â€œIf the police officer doesnâ€™t understand the nuances of the Latino community, they wonâ€™t be able to maintain a safe community."
But Angela Arboleda, associate director of criminal justice policy at the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza, said the policy would seek to enforce public law by undermining public safety. She said victims and witnesses of crimes might fear being targeted for immigration violations and would avoid approaching the police if they knew officers would inquire about their status and possibly detain them.
Since many Latino families have some members who are undocumented and others with legal status, Arboleda predicts many would be reluctant to report a crime to the police.
Arboleda said giving state police officers this enforcement power would further damage tense relations between police and immigrant communities.
â€œIf the police officer doesnâ€™t understand the nuances of the Latino community, they wonâ€™t be able to maintain a safe community,â€� she said. Arboleda said police officers often do not understand accents or that certain neighborhoods they patrol are primarily Spanish speaking. Latinos often look down when talking to police officers out of respect, which police officers sometimes misinterpret as an expression of guilt, Arboleda said.
Giving police officers this discretion will inevitably lead to the targeting of Latinos and other people of color.
Some residents of Houston, Texas are also pushing to increase the role of local law enforcement in immigration detention and deportation â€“ a role the police department is resisting.
A group called Protect Our Citizens is circulating a petition to set up a November ballot initiative to eliminate what they refer to as the Houston policeâ€™s â€œsanctuary-city policy.â€� Current rules prohibit police officers from asking about the immigration status of residents who police have not been arrested.
Councilwoman Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, who is reportedly hoping to succeed Tom DeLay as a US congressional representative, said she was one of the first people to sign the petition.
â€œThe sanctuary-city policy basically ties our police officersâ€™ hands from asking about anyone who breaks [immigration] law,â€� she Sekula-Gibbs told TNS,
But Houston Police Department spokesman Alvin Wright said that empowering police officers to detain undocumented immigrants would impede police from attending to their normal duties. â€œIf we start making arrests based on immigration issues, our police officers wind up in immigration courts to deal with issues that are more on the federal level,â€� Wright said.
Several other cities have similar policies restricting when police can inquire about the immigration status of residents.
Romney spokesperson Fehrnstrom said that, like in Houston, officers in Massachusetts only check the immigration status of people already arrested, and report to ICE those who are undocumented.
Proponents of more aggressive enforcement policies say such proposals would crack down on all undocumented immigrants, regardless of their nationality. But immigrant-rights advocates and civil libertarians say the measure could compound racial profiling.
Since many Latino families have some members who are undocumented and others with legal status, many would be reluctant to report a crime to the police.
Arboleda, of La Raza, said that police officers have no other reasons to suspect people of illegal immigration other than their appearance, and that giving police officers this discretion will inevitably lead to the targeting of Latinos and other people of color.
In the past few years, studies have been released showing that police in Massachusetts and Texas already disproportionately target Latino and black men, prejudicial trends that advocates say reflect a nationwide phenomenon rooted in racism.
Under a legal mandate to collect data on racial profiling, for instance, the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety released figures in 2004 revealing that most law-enforcement agencies in the state were more likely to issue citations to drivers of color than white drivers.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts told TNS that expanding immigration enforcement abilities will lead to further racial profiling. â€œOne can only think if the state police also [take on the role of] federal agents, youâ€™re going to see an increase in the racial disparities,â€� she said.