Groups fight arrests of illegal immigrants by municipal police

Such authority allowed as part of war on terror


WASHINGTON - A coalition of immigration advocacy groups is challenging the Justice Department's decision to allow state and local police departments to pursue illegal immigrants as part of the war on terror.

Taking on a job traditionally done by federal agents, a small number of police departments have begun arresting people on civil violations of immigration law, such as overstaying visas, since the Justice Department announced its new interpretation of existing laws last year, officials say.

Officials say the change was necessary to provide assistance to federal immigration officers and to remove criminals and potential terrorists from the streets. But the Justice Department has refused to release the documents on which it based its decision to advocacy groups, who say the decision is illegal and undermines confidence in local law enforcement.

Police chiefs in states including Texas, California, Florida and Colorado have warned that allowing local officials to make immigration arrests would jeopardize relations with immigrants, who might be less willing to report crimes. Today, a coalition of immigrant groups plans to file a lawsuit in federal court in New York to force the Justice Department to turn over its records.

"There are serious legal questions about this," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, one of eight advocacy groups suing the government. "But it is difficult to raise those concerns in a meaningful way if you can't hold up the policy and describe what it is."

Jorge Martinez, spokesman for the Justice Department, said he did not know the details of the advocacy groups' efforts to obtain the records. Martinez said the new policy was intended to protect public safety and emphasized that local police chiefs who disagreed with the Justice Department were not obliged to participate.

"We're concentrating on arresting aliens who have violated criminal provisions of the Immigration and Naturalization Act or civil provisions that render an alien deportable; that's the narrow scope," he said.

He added, "I think the community would be appreciative of law enforcement doing its job and arresting criminal violators and people of national security concern in order to make the community safe."

The Justice Department's decision to revisit the issue caused an outcry last year when it became public.

In 1996, the Justice Department's legal counsel decided that local police officers were precluded from tracking and arresting illegal immigrants. Such matters were to be handled by federal immigration officials. That decision was reiterated in a memorandum in November 2001.

White House officials expressed concern last year when the Justice Department started to revive the issue. But by June, the department came up with a policy that appeared to be acceptable to the Bush administration.

In a letter to the National Immigration Forum last month, Attorney General John Ashcroft said his legal counsel had determined that immigrants who were deportable under immigration law or posed threats to national security could be arrested by local law enforcement.

Ashcroft said the names of such immigrants are being entered into the FBI's crime database. "No state or local law enforcement agency need participate if they do not wish to do so or if their state laws preclude them from doing so," he wrote.

Timothy Danahey, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, praised Ashcroft's decision. With about 8 million illegal immigrants in the country, federal immigration agents are overwhelmed, Danahey said.

"Immigration law enforcement has been overlooked, and the approximately 2,000 INS special agents assigned to interior enforcement matters is not adequate," he said during a congressional hearing last week.

But many advocates for immigrants fear that the policy will encourage racial profiling. They also wonder why the government has refused to release documents describing the policy.

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