Safety, not status, is focus

City police say immigration policy isn't their business

May 18, 2008|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Every month for the past three years, Jeanne Velez has convened a Latino community meeting with the same assertion: Baltimore City police officers are not immigration agents.

The meetings, a partnership between Velez, a longtime activist in Baltimore's Hispanic community, and Southeast District commanders, serve to urge skittish new immigrants to shed their fear of the authorities, while educating them about public safety and victims' rights.

It's a vastly different approach from the new policy of the Frederick County Sheriff's Office, which recently became the only law enforcement agency in Maryland to sign an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to check immigration status when they make an arrest or respond to a call for service.

Montgomery County has a policy of checking the immigration status of people police arrest.

Nationwide, a rising number of local agencies are deputizing officers to enforce federal immigration laws, sparking fierce debate about the priorities of local authorities. On one hand, politicians and some residents, frustrated with federal authorities' failure to clamp down on surging illegal immigration, are pressing police agencies to take enforcement into their own hands. Meanwhile, immigrant advocates and some crime-fighting experts assert cracking down on illegal immigrants encourages ethnic profiling, threatens community-police relations and siphons resources away from fighting violent crime.

Although this debate is heating up in Maryland, few law enforcement agencies appear willing to follow the Frederick County sheriff's lead. Most chief law enforcement officials in the Baltimore region said they do not plan to enter such agreements, with some saying they know very little about such enforcement policies.

"We see immigration enforcement as a federal law enforcement responsibility, and we have a local responsibility," said Bill Toohey, spokesman for the Baltimore County Police Department, adding that the county would not sign an agreement with federal authorities. "We are not passing judgment about whether the federal government is doing enough. We are just drawing the line. We are a local law enforcement agency with local responsibilities."

But Brad Botwin, director of the anti-illegal immigration group Help Save Maryland, said local authorities cooperate with federal agents all the time and that Frederick's policy is no different. The group is launching a letter-writing campaign to sheriffs across the state, urging them to adopt enforcement agreements with the federal government.

"Maryland citizens have no problem with local law enforcement enforcing federal laws," he said. "The states certainly assist the FBI and others when there are bank robberies. Why would they not assist helping to remove illegal aliens?"

Botwin disagrees with police outreach efforts to illegal immigrant communities, saying U.S. citizens should be law enforcement's first priority.

"At the end of the day, the illegal aliens should not be here," he said. "We are happy to help our local law enforcement in turning in, identifying and getting ICE training to local law enforcement."

But Velez said illegal-immigrant crime victims deserve the same police protection that citizens do, and that illegal immigrants are perceived as easy prey by criminals who assume they are too fearful to call the police. She commended Baltimore police for reaching out to the growing Hispanic immigrant community and hiring bilingual officers and Spanish-speaking victims advocates.

A policy similar to Frederick's would "traumatize" the immigrant community in Baltimore, Velez said.

"Everything we have worked so hard to build up three years ago, all of that would be destroyed in an instant with the [agreement]," she said. "This is not an issue of politics or immigration - this is about good policing."

Others insist enforcement agreements with the federal government have been successful.

"Around the country, this has been extremely effective with gang-bangers and criminal aliens - getting them off the street is a priority," said Del. Patrick L. McDonough, a Baltimore County Republican, who says more Maryland counties should enforce immigration laws. "Just as we have gang suppression units and juvenile units that are specialists in certain areas of the law. These agreements don't translate to a trained vigilante force. It is just enforcing the law."

Baltimore police spokesman Sterling Clifford said the city has no formal policy on asking the immigration status of suspects - and that it doesn't need one. When the agency is asked to cooperate with immigration agents on a particular case, it does.

"Generally what officers and detectives inquire about is things relevant to the incident they are dealing with; I don't know if often, or ever, immigration status is relevant," he said. "What the officers here have to be focused on is keeping people safe. We have to do what we have to do to make sure people in danger call the police."

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