Politics

The Immigration Enforcement Divide

Legislators are trying to pass laws requiring immigration checks, but they're running into resistance from the people who would enforce them.
by | March 2011
 

With Congress still deadlocked on the immigration issue, states are moving forward on their own. Requiring local law enforcement to check the legal status of people they suspect are in the country illegally is an approach that’s already been tossed out by a federal judge, but legislators in more than a half-dozen states nevertheless want to give the idea another try.

“It’s similar to the Arizona bill, SB 1070,” says Utah state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, describing his approach. “I think I made changes to it that make it a better bill, so it will pass the scrutiny of the courts.”

But even if legislators like Sandstrom can avoid the legal pitfalls that have bedeviled the Arizona law, they’re still running into resistance from the very people who would be charged with enforcement.

Running immigration checks on more arrests is going to cost money, says Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. That’s not welcome news at a time when funding to carry out traditional police activities is already under stress. “Our big concern is just having the budget to carry out the day-to-day responsibilities that law enforcement is called upon to provide,” she says.

Some officers also worry about the potential damage such an approach could have on their ability to build relationships within Latino communities. “Any beat cop will tell you that the No. 1 asset in preventing crimes or apprehending criminals is cooperation from the community,” says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which conducts policy research on Latino issues. “When that bond is broken, it’s difficult to recover.”

Opinion within law enforcement is split. Many officers and sheriffs say they could put new authority to good use, not only in terms of addressing illegal immigration but also associated problems such as drug trafficking. “This gives cops tools to get these guys off the streets,” says Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports stricter immigration laws.

Even if SB 1070-style laws don’t ultimately pass constitutional muster, local agencies will continue to play an expanding role in immigration enforcement, given increasing participation in federal programs such as Secure Communities and 287(g), which enlists local law enforcers to aid in searching for undocumented immigrants. But it’s not always clear how effectively they can process the illegal immigrants they apprehend.

Sheriffs and police already complain that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can barely handle the caseload it now has, leading many illegal immigrants to languish in local jails—or be released. ICE officials have told local law enforcement agencies that, at best, they have the capacity to deport 400,000 individuals a year. They’re already averaging about 390,000.

“We don’t always take action on every individual that’s referred to us,” says a spokeswoman for ICE.

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