Union Tribune

November 29, 2003

Proposal targets migrants' offenses
Police say they lack resources to make arrests


WASHINGTON More than a year after the collapse of a controversial Justice Department plan to grant local police the power to arrest people for immigration offenses, a similar proposal is moving through Congress.

It is meeting the same response: opposition from many immigration advocates and police officials, especially those in California.

Although it's illegal for immigrants to live in the United States without immigration papers, state and local law enforcement agencies have traditionally refused to arrest them for such violations.

They argue that they don't have sufficient resources and that such a policy would make policing immigrant communities more difficult.

Sponsors of the legislation insist that the measure would improve law enforcement and crack down on terrorism. But immigration activists say it is tantamount to "immigrant bashing."

Battle lines are being drawn on the proposed Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Act, which is expected to remain a contentious issue in the coming weeks.

Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., have similar bills in the House and Senate that would penalize states and localities potentially millions of dollars if they don't arrest immigrant violators. Norwood's bill has more than 100 co-sponsors.

"Every day, I hear from more rank-and-file law enforcement officers throughout this country who are saying, 'Enough is enough,' " Norwood said. "They believe it's time to fix our badly broken immigration system, stop putting criminal aliens back on our streets and make the Clear Act the law of the land and they're right."

Many law enforcement authorities agree that the immigration system is flawed.

But they say they don't have the financial resources to arrest people for immigration-related civil violations, such as visa fraud. They contend that job should remain in the hands of federal officials.

"I believe the biggest argument from most big-city chiefs (against immigration enforcement) is simply the lack of resources," said David Bejarano, the former San Diego police chief who is now the U.S. marshal for San Diego and Imperial counties.

Daniel Ortega, police chief in Salinas, calls the proposals in Congress "extortion."

"Norwood from Georgia, either he just doesn't care or know about the issues we have," said Ortega, whose city is 64 percent Latino. "We're trying to gain the trust of our community."

In National City
A recent incident in National City highlighted the debate.

A 36-year-old man, accompanied by family members, was questioned by police about a shoplifting incident. Although no charges were filed, the Border Patrol was notified and the man's aunt and cousin were deported.

Law enforcement authorities say what occurred in National City is not the norm. National City's City Council is scheduled to discuss the incident at its Tuesday night meeting.

Under the proposed legislation, federal money would be used as a carrot and a stick.

As an enticement to local and state police, the bill would award them assets seized from undocumented immigrants. Those agencies who refuse to arrest illegal immigrants for civil violations would be restricted in their ability to obtain funds from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, which is used to pay for the incarceration of criminal immigrants.

Some in Congress "feel they can mandate certain programs to hold off funding to cities, and we feel that's wrong," said Rick TerBorch, head of the California Police Chiefs Association and the Arroyo Grande police chief.

Last year, Attorney General John Ashcroft failed in an attempt to widely broaden the authority of local police to enforce immigration laws. When the Justice Department's internal plans attracted public attention, they were heavily criticized.

1996 law
A 1996 immigration law authorized the attorney general to deputize state and local police during an immigration emergency and also allowed the attorney general to enter into agreements with states and localities that would permit them to routinely enforce immigration laws.

Florida and Alabama have such agreements with the Justice Department.

Earlier this month, Alabama state troopers were given the go-ahead to enforce federal immigration laws. The troopers "have clear authority to arrest illegal aliens," Sessions said.

"As we all know, our country has benefited from legal immigration," Sessions said. "But it is important that we effectively enforce our generous immigration laws and reduce illegality. In the past, federal law enforcement has been a joke."

Many immigration advocates disagree.

"Making state and local police enforce federal immigration law strikes a direct blow at the efforts of police to win the trust and confidence of the communities they serve," said Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrants' advocacy group.

"By turning police into immigration agents, it discourages immigrants from having contact with local law enforcement, which in turn, puts community policing strategies at risk," Sharry said.

Staff writer Norberto Santana Jr. contributed to this report.