Communities Change When Local Police Enforce Immigration Laws | Commentary

Posted October 30, 2013 at 2:30pm

Should local police be involved in enforcing the nation’s immigration laws?

The answer to this question may seem obvious. After all, a law is a law. But the answer is neither that simple, nor that straightforward.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that the federal government has exclusive powers to enact and enforce immigration law. But a patchwork of laws and policies call on local law enforcement authorities to participate in immigration enforcement. Key among these is the Secure Communities deportation program, or S-Comm.

Under S-Comm, when law enforcement authorities take someone’s fingerprints, the prints are sent automatically from the FBI to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement database for an immigration background check. ICE then decides when to send a detainer request to local law enforcement agencies. While the immigrant is incarcerated, ICE decides whether to take further action.

The goal of S-Comm is to facilitate the removal of criminal offenders who are a threat to public safety. But researchers at Florida International University found that just 18 percent of those targeted by the program in Miami-Dade County, Fla., were high-priority risks to public safety.

The majority of those deported “posed little or no risk to public safety.”

Is it possible that, rather than ensuring public safety, policies such as S-Comm actually undermine it? In November 2012, a random telephone survey of 2,004 Latinos living in the counties of Cook (Chicago), Harris (Houston), Los Angeles and Maricopa (Phoenix) examined the impact of police involvement in immigration enforcement on residents’ perceptions of the police. The results show that blurring the line between local police and immigration enforcement has led to a profound erosion of residents’ trust of the police.

One question in the survey is most revealing. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagree with the statement: “I am less likely to contact police officers if I have been the victim of a crime for fear they will ask me or people I know about our immigration status.” Fully 44 percent of those surveyed agreed with this statement.

Undocumented immigrants were more likely to agree with this statement, but so did 28 percent of U.S.-born Latinos. This shouldn’t be a surprise; several years ago the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that 8.8 million persons are living in mixed-status families, where one or both parents are undocumented while their children are citizens. In states such as California, where S-Comm has deported more than 90,000 people, it is obvious why such impressions have become widespread.

The survey results clearly show that increased involvement of police in immigration enforcement has significantly heightened the fears many Latinos have of the police, undermining their trust of law enforcement authorities. And when residents don’t trust the police, they are less likely to report crimes, even if they have been the victims.

The mistrust of the police runs deep. When survey participants were asked, “How often do you think police officers stop Latinos and Hispanics on the streets of your city without good reason or cause?” 62 percent of Latinos surveyed in the four cities replied “very or somewhat often.”

To maintain effective police-community relations, the police must forge bonds of trust with the communities they serve. The willingness of residents to voluntarily contact police when they have been victims of or witnesses to a crime depends on these bonds of trust. When law enforcement practices undermine residents’ confidence in the police, those practices need to be changed. It’s a good sign that municipalities such as Newark, New Orleans and Chicago have established models for such reforms, and that California is considering policy changes as well.

Creating a bright line between police and federal immigration enforcement should be top priority so that local law enforcement authorities can begin rebuilding the trust of the communities they are sworn to serve and protect.

Nik Theodore is professor of urban planning and policy at the Great Cities Institute of the University of Illinois at Chicago.