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Here’s How Not to Jump-Start Immigration Reform in House | Commentary

If you believe what you read in the papers and hear on TV, the House is getting ready to engage on immigration reform. Or, maybe not, depending on how House Republicans respond to legislative principles outlined by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. It seems like the prospects for reform waver every day.

As the police chief of Dayton, Ohio, I’m not really in a position to prognosticate about the prospects of immigration reform in Congress.

But something I am an authority on is what works to keep communities safe. That’s what I’ve devoted my life’s work to.

And what I know from my professional experience is that the so-called SAFE Act, a bill pending in the House that would allow all 50 states and all localities to enact their own immigration enforcement laws, would be an unmitigated disaster and should not be used as a the vehicle to jump-start immigration reform. In spite of its misleading name, it would actually make our communities less safe.

As The New York Times noted in a profile of our city’s welcoming attitude toward immigrants, one of the ways we’ve been able to make our city safer is to foster a sense of trust with our immigrant communities. As I noted in the article, “If we have any group of citizens who are afraid to talk to us or don’t trust us, that’s going to compromise our ability to produce public safety.”

Like other cities, the Dayton Police Department works hard to build trust with our community members so that they are not afraid to work with us if they are witnesses to or victims of crime. Our officers do not check the immigration status of witnesses and victims. Nor do we ask about legal status during minor traffic stops.

These policies allow us to focus our limited resources on our primary mission — crime solving and community safety. They also send the message that victims of violent crime, human trafficking and other crimes should never be afraid to reach out for help due to fear of the immigration consequences. Since Dayton adopted these policies and innovative ways of addressing crime problems, our crime rates have significantly declined. In the past three years, serious violent crime has dropped nearly 22 percent while serious property crime has gone down almost 15 percent.

The city’s policy also benefits our economy. Because of the economic downturn in 2008 that severely affected the industrial Midwest, Dayton has been inviting immigrant communities to relocate to our city to help churn our local economy. Our experience has shown us that immigrant-friendly policies help to build small businesses, create jobs and spur innovation, while also stimulating the local housing market.

We have yet to recover from the decline in city revenues following the economic downturn in 2008 that forced a 20 percent reduction in police staffing. Other cities suffered similar consequences. In Camden, N.J., according to the Police Executive Research Forum, the police department suffered more than half of the layoffs ordered by the city two years ago because of the economic downturn. There is absolutely no way that my department can take on an additional and impossible task like immigration enforcement, even if I believed it were the right thing to do, which I do not believe it is.

Numerous local law enforcement officials across the country agree that they do not have the time, resources or expertise to engage in immigration enforcement. Any law that would require us to do so would wrongly delegate to us an unreasonable task and cause us to compromise our core mission of ensuring public safety.

The SAFE Act is unworkable, and I sincerely urge the House to abandon this bad idea in the interest of public safety in Dayton and in cities across the country. There are better ways to jump start the debate on comprehensive immigration reform in the House.

Richard S. Biehl is the police chief of Dayton, Ohio.

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