Local police may get role in immigrant law

Federal bill to address disparities among agencies

July 09, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

If you are an illegal immigrant in Maryland and you call police to report a crime, what happens next is a matter of location.

In Howard County, police will not ask how you arrived in the country unless they find that you have broken a law. But if a state trooper shows up at your door and suspects that you are in the United States illegally, you will probably be reported to the federal government.

"Any time we come in contact with somebody [and] we're concerned about documentation, we contact the authorities," said Lt. Bud Frank, a Maryland State Police spokesman.

Such disparities are common among the nation's state and local police departments. Some departments won't contact federal immigration authorities; others join with the federal government to train their officers to recognize and report undocumented immigrants.

Advocates for immigrants and some law enforcement officials oppose such collaboration, arguing that requiring local police to enforce immigration laws prevents undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes or coming forward as witnesses.

Such cooperation might soon be required by law. Spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and terrorist threats by some of the estimated 80,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records in the United States, several members of Congress plan to introduce legislation today that would give local law enforcement agencies greater access to federal databases and provide funding for local police to be trained in immigration law.

"I don't envision the federal government hiring half a million [immigration] officers," said Rep. Charlie Norwood, a Georgia Republican who is sponsoring the bill. "That leaves us one option: the guy walking the beat and driving the highway that is fairly consistently coming into contact with illegal aliens."

Historically, federal agents have handled immigration violations and local police have enforced other laws, and the two rarely combined forces. In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which allowed the federal government and local police to work together under certain circumstances if they reached specific written agreements.

A handful of local agencies have reached such agreements with the federal authorities. But in June last year, Attorney General John Ashcroft said state and local police could enforce immigration laws, leading many legislators to push for greater cooperation between local police and the federal government without written agreements.

No Maryland police agencies have reached such agreements with the federal government. Many local police departments in the state, including those in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, generally will not report illegal immigrants unless they have committed crimes.

But many agencies across the country, including the Maryland State Police, are volunteering immigration information. Late last month, state police arrested two men traveling north on Interstate 95 who had nearly half a million dollars in heroin behind the radio. One of the men, Alberto Puente, 47, of Miami, had entered the country illegally, according to state police, who contacted federal authorities.

The Puente case seems clear-cut because he is being charged with a crime, but state police policy is to inform federal authorities about anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

"That's a crime being committed," said Frank, the state police spokesman. "We're very concerned with homeland security, and we have to check."

Other jurisdictions also are concerned about homeland security and immigration. Thirty-five officers with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and local agencies in that state have been trained by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Services. The Florida agency, a 1,500-person unit that provides investigative and forensic support to police departments, studied federal immigration law and has access to federal records. It investigates only people who are suspected terrorists, not "run-of-the-mill immigration offenses," said Al Dennis, a department spokesman.

Some elected officials say such partnerships are necessary because the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services has only 2,000 field officers and many of the nation's estimated 680,000 local police officers are reluctant to enforce immigration law.

"We have no way in this country to do anything about illegal immigrants once they enter the country," said Norwood, the Georgia congressman. The bill, which will be known as the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act of 2003, is being co-sponsored by one Democratic and two Republican representatives.

9/11 Families for a Secure America is also expected to support the bill.

Advocates for immigrants say such laws, by leading to racial profiling, would weaken, not strengthen, law enforcement.

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