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Action Alert to Advocates: Department of Justice to Release Legal Opinion Giving Green Light to Local Police Enforcement of Immigration Laws
by National Immigration Forum

Yesterday's San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the Justice Department is about to release a legal opinion that will say that states and localities have the "inherent authority" to enforce immigration laws. This will presumably clear the way for local police agencies that wish to do so to arrest and detain persons based on suspected immigration law violations.

This opinion will remove conditions placed on INS/local police cooperation set in the 1996 immigration law, which allowed the INS to enter into agreements with states and localities to permit them to enforce immigration laws. Requirements that police undergo extensive training in immigration law have been an impediment, and in some localities where local enforcement agencies have expressed an interest, (Salt Lake City, for example) political opposition killed the effort.

Since the 1996 law, no agreements have been implemented. With the new DOJ opinion, this is likely to change. The Forum has issued a statement responding to this news. We have also developed talking points for your use.

You are encouraged to use the attached talking points and protest this decision with your local news media. We believe the most effective argument against this policy is that it would make communities less safe. If immigrant communities are to be subject to immigration enforcement by local police agencies, those agencies will find it impossible to gain the trust of immigrant communities in their public safety efforts. The entire community will be less safe. For this reason, many local police agencies have rejected the chance to enforce immigration laws.

In the past, local operations to enforce immigration laws have been disastrous to local communities. The town of Chandler, Arizona, presents perhaps the most famous (but not the only) case. In 1997, local police stopped and questioned dozens of individuals in Latino neighborhoods--even breaking into homes without a warrant. Victims of the operation--including citizens and permanent residents--brought lawsuits that cost the town hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle.

It is important to make your opinion known on this issue, as publicly as possible. This policy will have no effect on the fight against terrorism, although that rationale will undoubtedly be used. The primary victims will be from our largest immigrant populations (and their descendents)--from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean--who have come here to work and to be with their families. The White House is ostensibly trying to court the immigrant vote and the political powers that be should hear from immigrant communities and their advocates that this policy will come at a political cost.

Below are talking points on this issue.

====================== TALKING POINTS

** Turning local cops into INS agents has been soundly rejected by the mayors of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as others. What makes the Attorney General think that he knows more about effective state and local law enforcement than they do?

There is a good reason why Mayors Giuliani, Bloomberg, Riordon, and Daly among others, have opposed local police becoming immigration agents. When large segments of the community are afraid to work with the police and immigrants are afraid to come forward and report crimes and testify in criminal cases, then cops have a tougher time enforcing laws. These are not abstract legal theories. Immigrant communities often fear law enforcement based on experiences in their countries of origin, and in many communities, local cops spend tremendous time and energy building trust in these communities. In one fell swoop, the Department of Justice will erode that confidence, making people afraid and putting cops behind the eight ball in getting their job done.

** The Department of Justice over-reaching will create enormous problems in local communities and smaller cities.

While New York and other big cities with experience on this issue will have the good sense to not nibble from the Justice Department's poisoned apple, we worry that smaller communities, in Iowa, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Arizona, for example, will have their share of local prima donnas looking to advance their political careers at the expense of good local law enforcement. Immigration laws are complicated, requiring years of training to understand and enforce legally. The Department of Justice is proposing to have local cops become immigration enforcers without a minute of training. This leaves the communities highly exposed to lawsuits brought on by the inevitable mistakes that cops will make in stopping and detaining people who are citizens or who have valid legal immigration status. Localities will pay the price, quite literally, in defending against law suits from the mistakes of their local law enforcers. They will also suffer when their local cops are distracted with new duties they will scarcely understand.

Cops need to solve crimes and prevent terrorism. DOJ is giving the green light to what sounds like an effort to increase our security, but will more likely undermine effectiveness and security in local communities. Whether it's legal or not is dubious, but from a law enforcement point of view, it is a disaster.

** A Small leak could have a huge impact.

Just the announcement that DOJ is considering this is going to interfere with the ability of local police to enforce laws and have safer communities. In immigrant communities, where people are likely to get inaccurate and second hand information about this announcement, the leak about the DOJ decision will make the work of local cops more daunting as immigrants lose confidence in their local police.

About The Author

The preceding is a statement by the National Immigration Forum, the nation's leading pro-immigrant policy group. The purpose of the National Immigration Forum is to embrace and uphold America's tradition as a nation of immigrants. The Forum advocates and builds public support for public policies that welcome immigrants and refugees and that are fair and supportive to newcomers in our country.