Policing Immigration

August 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPOKESMAN: Hello. Hi, I’m john. Nice to meet you. Thank you.

LEE HOCHBERG: Since September 11, Seattle’s police force has reached out to the city’s 50,000 Muslims. It hoped a police presence might protect Muslims from hate crimes while furnishing intelligence about criminal activity. So appreciative was one Muslim congregation that it held a ceremony to thank the police. But now the police say a new federal tactic in the war on terrorism threatens all the good they’ve accomplished. The tactic was laid out by Attorney General John Ashcroft at a press conference this summer.

JOHN ASHCROFT: Today I am announcing the national security entry-exit registration system. This system will expand substantially America’s scrutiny of those foreign visitors who may pose a national security concern and enter our country.

LEE HOCHBERG: The attorney general wants to use local police as part of his expanded program to track aliens. He said more aliens will be photographed and fingerprinted upon entry to the U.S. and the names of those who overstay their visas will be put into the national crime information system. And he wants any police who encounter those aliens to arrest them.

JOHN ASHCROFT: The nation’s 650,000 police officers check this system regularly when they make traffic stops or routine encounters, and we believe this is something which is so pressing in its nature that we can ask for their cooperation and volunteerism here.

LEE HOCHBERG: Arresting illegal aliens has been the duty of federal agents, not local police. In fact, the Justice Department in 1996 rendered an opinion discouraging local police from detaining aliens unless they had committed a criminal offense. But Ashcroft says war-time conditions change things.

JOHN ASHCROFT: This narrow, limited mission we’re asking state and local police to under take voluntarily, arresting aliens who have violated criminal provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act or civil provisions that render an alien deportable, that narrow mission is within the inherent authority of the states.

LEE HOCHBERG: The proposal has outraged many in immigrant communities, as well as civil libertarians on the left and right. And though there’s no exact number available, many police forces have refused to cooperate.

OFFICER JOHN DITTO, Seattle: There’s just no way that I’m going to find terrorists by trying to find people who are illegal aliens.

LEE HOCHBERG: In Seattle, Officer John Ditto says aliens who fear being arrested for visa violations aren’t going to approach him with tips about more serious crimes.

OFFICER JOHN DITTO: From what I see I think people would have one more reason to runaway from me, and that’s not something that I think I want to have happen.

LEE HOCHBERG: Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, in fact, issued a policy statement opposing Ashcroft’s order. It says Seattle police will encourage all complainants to communicate with Seattle police officers without inquiry regarding their immigration status.

GIL KERLIKOWSKE, Seattle Police Chief: The best prevention against a future terrorist attack is a police department that has the trust and good communication with all of the people that it serves, and something that is going to chill that relationship doesn’t help any of us.

LEE HOCHBERG: Some in the immigrant community also fear that people will avoid the police at all costs.

ANA MARIA RIVERA (Translated): Police are supposed to protect me as a human being, not as a Mexican, not as a Latino, but as a human being.

LEE HOCHBERG: When Ana Maria Rivera was raped and battered by her then-husband, she didn’t call police because her immigration papers weren’t in order. Domestic abuse already is an underreported crime among immigrants. Rivera thinks Ashcroft’s plan will mean even fewer women reporting it in the future.

ANA MARIA RIVERA (Translated): It’s a weapon for the abuser. He’s going to feel stronger — even more if he’s legal. He’s going to say, “Call the police and they’re going to deport you.” This is going to be a weapon. And this is going to be another thing that women are going to be afraid of.

LEE HOCHBERG: Some abuse counselors say they’ve even altered the advice they give victims. Hollis Pfitsch of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.

HOLLIS PFITSCH, Domestic Abuse Counselor: Well, I used to tell my clients, even though you’re undocumented, you can call the police, you have the right to their protection, and it’s important that you do call the police if you’re in a dangerous situation. And now I tell them be careful calling the police.

LEE HOCHBERG: For police themselves, there’s also the issue of not having enough time to catch criminals as it is.

SHERIFF DALE BRANDLAND, Whatcom County, Washington State: I’m not going to have my folks out arresting illegal aliens and illegal immigrants. We have too many other things to do.

LEE HOCHBERG: Dale Brandland, sheriff of Washington State’s Whatcom County, 2,000 square miles long the U.S.-Canada boundary with some 24 million border crossings per year. He says his force already prosecutes 90% of the immigration cases generated by the federal border patrol, Customs, and DEA agents. He says Ashcroft’s new mandate would cost money his force doesn’t have.

SHERIFF DALE BRANDLAND: To start suggesting this is our war and you’ve got to be part of the team, well, part of the team means everybody gets paid. (Laughs) We’re not getting paid. We’re just getting stuck with the work here. Of catching illegals is important to them, they need to go hire the people and do it themselves.

LEE HOCHBERG: But police forces that are abiding by the government’s request, like Las Vegas, say the duty of local law enforcers expands at war time.

LT. VINCENT CANNITO, Las Vegas Police Department: Imagine if we were able to identify the 19 hijackers that were here in this country on visas that expired, on fake I.D. Imagine if we were able to identify them and prevent those criminal acts from taking place.

LEE HOCHBERG: Department spokesman Vincent Cannito:

LT. VINCENT CANNITO: September 11 clearly has shown us that intelligence gathering, intelligence sharing, working together with every agency in this country, particularly for our perspective within the southern Nevada area, we must work together.

LEE HOCHBERG: And David Muhlhausen of the conservative heritage foundation argues that with war being waged on American soil and the INS having only 2,000 agents available to track terrorists, Ashcroft is right to ask for help.

DAVID MUHLHAUSEN, Heritage Foundation: He is not calling on local law enforcement to go out and harass the immigrant community. He’s asking them when they run into somebody who is wanted for violating their visa status, and this individual is from a terrorist country or has suspected terrorist ties, that law enforcement agent can pick up that person.

LEE HOCHBERG: He adds, it’s a public safety issue.

DAVID MUHLHAUSEN: Police departments that refuse to cooperate with the attorney general’s request are announcing to the world that their communities are safe havens for terrorists.

LEE HOCHBERG: The attorney general’s office refused to be interviewed for this report, saying his press conference said everything there was to be said. He didn’t address specific police criticism, but did reiterate war time special needs.

JOHN ASHCROFT: We are dealing in a world that requires us to strengthen the hand of those who fight terrorism, and I believe that this is the right thing to do to protect America.

LEE HOCHBERG: But in cities like Seattle, where memories still exist of local police helping round up the Japanese in a different war effort 60 years ago, some say there’s a lesson about how police involvement can go wrong.

TOM IKEDA, Densho Project: It’s eerie to see step by step these things unfolding, how first people were detained and then you get the local police involved, and step by step some of the things that happened in ’42 are happening today.

LEE HOCHBERG: Tom Ikeda directs the Densho Project, which is collecting video interviews about the Japanese American incarceration during World War II. He says it stigmatized the Japanese community when local police fanned out across Seattle interrogating 7,000 Japanese.

TOM IKEDA: Local police officers are part of the community. And so once you have people within your community questioning and worried about a particular segment, that’s when sort of the fabric of the community changes. That’s what I see happening here.

LEE HOCHBERG: Ashcroft’s proposal will go through a comment period. The administration hopes to implement it in the fall, and also hopes to have up to 200,000 new names by then in its database of immigration violators.