Building Trust vs. Checking for Visas
David Hench, Portland Press (ME), Mar. 29
Police in and around Portland say they have worked hard in recent years to build bridges with local immigrant communities in the belief that cultivating trust offers the best chance of thwarting crime.
Checking for visas and work permits would shatter that trust, and could make it harder to identify and apprehend truly dangerous criminals, say some of the state’s top police officials.
But supporters of tougher immigration enforcement say 2,000 federal immigration investigators have no chance of catching the millions of foreigners who are in this country illegally. They say the only way to make a dent in illegal immigration and corral foreign terrorists already in this country is for local and state police to start checking whether people are here legally.
“Enforcing laws is enforcing laws,” said Kenneth Christian, an Ellsworth physician and a member of the immigration reform group Mainers for Sensible Immigration Policy. “If they’re going to be enforcing the law on an 18-year-old smoking a cigarette, I think enforcing the law on someone entering the country illegally is equally important.”
The debate is playing out in communities across the country, with police torn between their core mission of protecting local residents from crime and the broader goals of enforcing federal law and protecting national security.
Police in Maine and elsewhere say asking them to enforce immigration laws will actually interfere with their ability to protect public safety.
“They should supply federal agencies with the resources and manpower and not reach into the local communities to subvert the relationships we’re trying to promote with new arrivals,” Portland Police Chief Michael Chitwood said.
Legislation proposed at the federal level seeks to persuade police to enforce immigration laws and would levy penalties against states where officers are barred from making such inquiries. The bills target communities such as Portland, which last year passed an ordinance forbidding police officers from checking people’s immigration status unless they suspect the person of committing a serious crime or being a threat to national security.
A bill proposed in the U.S. House, called the CLEAR Act, would require states to pass laws authorizing police to investigate and apprehend people who are in the country illegally. A corresponding bill in the Senate so far has not gained as much support as the House measure.
Such laws essentially would override Portland’s ordinance. States that refuse would lose federal money earmarked for incarcerating federal inmates.
The bill also would take what are currently civil violations of immigration law, such as staying in the country after a visa expires, and make them criminal. It would identify such people in the National Crime Information Center database, used to keep track of people wanted by police.
Having local police enforce immigration law runs counter to the concept of community policing, which emphasizes strengthening relationships between police and the people they are charged with protecting, said Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion.
“Local law enforcement can’t work unless people trust us enough to talk to us,” Dion said. “The mission of public safety is safety first, and law enforcement follows from that.”
The bill actually could inhibit federal authorities’ ability to track terrorists and other serious security threats, Dion said.
“If we can’t build relationships and people can’t trust those relationships, (federal authorities) are never going to hear the intelligence that’s important,” Dion said. “And there’s no high-tech way to develop trust. It’s slow, one to one, and it takes time, but the dividends it pays are huge.”
Police say they are not averse to participating in immigration enforcement when those duties overlap their own core focus on public safety.
“If someone violating immigration laws is wanted for armed robbery, I will help,” said Chitwood, but he said police in the state’s largest city should not be seen as “the enemy” by large numbers of non-criminal immigrants.
Police also are wary of taking on new responsibilities more appropriately left to federal officials who can specialize in the complexities of immigration law.
“It is far more important in my view that our roads are kept safe, peoples’ rights are upheld and their homes and families are also protected,” Maine Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara said. “When you spread out people’s responsibilities too thinly, you run the risk of them doing many things not too well.”
David Ray, associate director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, insists it takes almost no time for officers to check a person’s immigration status in the course of normal police work, and it could save lives.
“Their unwillingness to enforce federal immigration laws could have deadly consequences for many innocent Americans like it did on 9/11,” Ray said. “Communities like Portland that are adopting sanctuary policies for illegal aliens might as well be holding out welcome signs for the next wave of al-Qaida terrorists.”
Positive relationships with people in the community should be based on them following the law, Ray said. “Police can’t be building public confidence by turning a blind eye to lawbreakers,” he said.
People who are in this country legally have nothing to fear from local police enforcing immigration laws, he said, but at least some legal immigrants and their advocates see it differently.
“The worst thing about the CLEAR Act is that we are a nation of immigrants. You have all sorts of people who live and work in this country who do not look white,” said Beth Stickney, a lawyer with the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project. “It would create a culture of ‘we vs. they’ which I think is completely antithetical to what this country has been built on for the past 100 years.”
One of the underlying anxieties about the act for opponents is the potential for so-called racial profiling, where enforcement targets people based on the color of their skin.
“Informally, it’s happening. People who deliver pizza or landlords call authorities and complain of the Middle East family who makes too many phone calls or reads newspapers not in English or people with pictures in their home that look like a terrorist,” said Reza Jalali, a native of Iran who came here in 1985 and is now a leader in Maine’s immigrant community.
Jalali cites the example of a friend who has been reported to authorities repeatedly because he has a picture of his faith’s spiritual leader on the wall of his home.
“If you don’t feel safe to have the picture of someone you like in your living room, there could potentially be something fundamentally wrong with our civil rights,” he said. His friend is a Baha’i, a religion whose members have been persecuted and killed by Islamic fundamentalists in Iran.
The CLEAR Act would give officers immunity from lawsuits when enforcing immigration laws unless the officers commit a crime, which opponents say is a blank check for racial profiling.
Most of the immigrants in southern Maine, Jalali said, are people who entered the country legitimately often after years of waiting and much suffering.
Christian said illegal immigration hurts legal immigrants worse than anyone, making jobs scarcer for those who play by the rules, wait in line and submit to background checks. He does not agree that greater immigration enforcement automatically leads to racial profiling.
“Opponents of this law are playing the race card and bringing up that fear and encouraging it,” he said. “I have much more trust in the professionalism of the Portland Police Department than obviously those people do.”