Election Section

Immigrants fear proposal to allow local police to enforce federal laws

By Deborah Kong, The Associated Press
Friday May 24, 2002

Justice Department considering giving cops power to enforce immigration laws; Florida the first state to agree to idea 


SAN FRANCISCO – Daniel Rosas Romero waits among the knots of men who line the sidewalks of a bustling street, hoping each day for painting, moving, gardening or construction jobs. 

The day laborers — many of whom slipped into the United States undocumented — have established an uneasy relationship with local police, who don’t ask whether they are in the country legally. 

Romero fears that delicate balance could tip under a new proposal being considered by the Justice Department, which would allow local and state police to enforce immigration laws. 

The Justice Department has not provided details about the idea floated in a legal opinion written by its attorneys. The department says only that it “continues to explore all options to enforce immigration laws,” said spokesman Dan Nelson. 

As security concerns and immigration policy intersect after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some states are considering similar initiatives. Supporters note INS agents are not usually patrolling the streets. But states’ officers are — and could limit the potential for terrorism by illegal immigrants, they say. 

The proposals are, however, raising questions and spreading fear throughout immigrant communities, where many worry they could be deported. 

“It would cause us as immigrants, no matter where we are, to be frightened,” said Romero, who came to the United States in search of work to pay for his teen-age son and daughter’s schooling in Mexico. 

“We’re not a problem. We can be a solution for this country” by doing work others are not willing to do, he said. Critics also believe the proposals could lead to racial profiling and discourage immigrants from reporting crimes to the police. 

Supporters say the Immigration and Naturalization Service, with 2,000 agents, lacks the staff to track suspected terrorists, much less an estimated 8 million illegal immigrants scattered throughout the country. Enlisting state and local authorities would create “a seamless web of protection against future threats,” said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. 

And Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, notes that “by definition, if you are an illegal alien, you’re not supposed to be here.” 

In Florida, the state is hoping to reach a first-of-its-kind agreement with the Justice Department to give 35 law enforcement officers the authority to arrest illegal immigrants deemed threats to national security, said Jennifer McCord, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. 

South Carolina Attorney General Charlie Condon wants to pursue a similar agreement, under which the state’s law enforcement officers would be deputized as INS agents. 

But workers like Mathieu Beaucicot, who is in the United States on temporary visa, feel police will wind up pursuing them. 

“People working in fields picking this country’s oranges and tomatoes aren’t terrorists, and yet they’re the ones who would suffer the consequences for this change in policy,” said Beaucicot, who fled Haiti after a political coup and works in the tomato fields of southwest Florida. 

In Colorado, state legislators were considering a bill that would have authorized officers to enforce criminal violations of federal immigration laws. The bill was postponed indefinitely, but the idea has made many immigrants feel more vulnerable, said Jorge Rubalcaba, a day laborer in Aurora, Colo. 

Two months ago, he called the police when he heard a neighbor hitting his wife. If that happened, under the new proposal, “I think I would not tell them,” he said. 

“Everybody’s worried and has doubts,” said Rubalcaba, who moved to the United States from Mexico six years ago. “You can’t even go out and have fun. You aren’t free to go shopping, you can’t go to a park. The normal things of life you can’t do.” 

Police are split on the issue. Some say officers could assist an overwhelmed INS. Others believe doing so could jeopardize relationships with immigrant communities, and contend it’s not their role to take on immigration duties. 

Some cities, including San Francisco and Chicago, already have policies that generally prevent city officials from asking about people’s immigration status. Officials said they haven’t concluded how the Justice Department’s proposal would affect such policies. 

On the San Francisco sidewalk, Andres Barela and other laborers scan each passing car, hoping its occupants will stop and hire them. 

“Terrorists are not going to be here in the streets,” said Barela, who sends his earnings to his grandmother and uncles in Honduras. “We are just honest persons. We want to work, make money and have families.”