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NEW IPSWICH, N.H. — The police chief of this tiny whitewashed New England town has crafted his own border-control policy — he has charged illegal immigrants from Mexico with trespassing in New Hampshire.
The novel legal strategy has made a minor celebrity of W. Garrett Chamberlain. The 36-year-old police chief hops to his feet and deposits a pile of letters on his desk, from Alaskans and Californians, Border Patrol agents and soldiers in Iraq, all applauding his initiative. Fox News commentators have called, too, seeking his views on national immigration policy.
Chamberlain, who has served as chief for three years, describes his actions as born of frustration with the federal government. His officers had discovered illegal immigrants several times, but immigration agents declined to detain them.
For now, however, their eyes are trained on New Ipswich, a town of 4,200 people set in green hills just north of the Massachusetts border. The Mexican immigrant, Jose Mora Ramirez, faces trial on the trespassing charge in July. The two Mexicans arrested in Hudson will be tried later that month.
The Mexican consulate has hired an attorney for Ramirez, fearing that a court may uphold the trespassing charges and so set a national precedent.
“The Mexican government was understandably worried that this could become the charge du jour across the country,” said Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union, which helped find the lawyer for Ramirez. “They worry about vigilante police chiefs who will round up people based on the color of their skin.”
Chamberlain was nudged into action in the summer of 2004, when he stopped a van for speeding along New Ipswich’s short main drag. He found 10 Ecuadoran men inside, all of whom readily admitted they lacked legal papers. Chamberlain placed a phone call to ICE.
“The feds were, like, ‘Whatever. Just give them a ticket and let them go,’ “ Chamberlain said. “I was shocked.”
New Ipswich officials checked with the state attorney general, who gave a modified thumbs up. “It’s a novel interpretation,” Assistant Attorney General Robert Carey said. But he added: “We weren’t aware of any New Hampshire case that would preclude that prosecution.”
The New Hampshire ACLU takes a dimmer view.
“This is a preposterous interpretation of a state law intended to apply to private property,” said Ebel of the state ACLU. “You have to turn your mental clock back 100 years to believe that a police chief has the right to set federal policy.”
Manny Van Pelt, a spokesman for the federal immigration service, declined to comment on the legal strategy. He noted that most police departments choose to tap into the federal government’s criminal database and consult with ICE agents on arrests. “The reality is that the immigration system was never set up to arrest every single illegal immigrant,” Van Pelt said. “You’d have to build prisons from the West Coast to the East Coast to do that.”
Contact Chief Chamberlain:
Chief W. Garrett Chamberlain
NEW IPSWICH POLICE DEPARTMENT
659 Turnpike Road
PO Box 439
New Ipswich, NH 03071
(Posted on June 13, 2005)