More Negative Consequences of Local Enforcement

Granting state and local law enforcement greater authority to enforce immigration law is not a winning strategy. Police in some jurisdictions receive training and authority from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, while others receive directives from their own state legislatures and local governments.  Evidence, however, continues to raise concern about the effectiveness and objectiveness of such action. A recent New York Times article highlights disconcerting trends at the national level and highlights recent obstacles encountered by the Florida community of Milton.

While some local investigations purport to crack down serious offenses, too often local law enforcement use their limited resources to address small crimes carried out by immigrants:

[I]n the last year, local police departments from coast to coast have rounded up hundreds of immigrants for nonviolent, often minor, crimes, like fishing without a license in Georgia, with the end result being deportation.

Even when local police concentrate on more serious crimes, however, the results can be unsettling. In its overview of local efforts in Milton, the Times article recounts a recent inspection program aimed at uncovering identity theft. Although it did lead to multiple arrests, the program operated in a troubling environment.

First, local citizens sometimes exaggerate the presence of immigrants in their community. In particular citizens may overestimate in communities with low immigrant populations. The Times article deemed representative the following comments from one local citizen:

[Harry T. Buckles] feared his community would lose its character and become like Miami, with its foreign-born majority and common use of Spanish. ‘We see things nationwide and we know that we could be overwhelmed,’ he said.

This citizen fears an impending inundation, when in fact immigrants in Santa Rosa County (which includes Milton) comprise only 3% of the total population. Such local sentiment would have little impact if law enforcement could distinguish between legitimate threats and local prejudices. Unfortunately the identity-theft program wasn’t immune from such bias:

[O]ther business owners, employees and residents said the police focused disproportionately on Hispanics or the foreign born and seemed determined to scare immigrants out of the area. In many cases, employers said, the officers did not even mention identity theft, narrowing their scope to immigrants.

‘They were targeting all the places with Hispanic workers,’ said Elvin Garcia, 26, a waiter at El Rodeo.

At Red Barn Barbecue, witnesses said that skin color clearly influenced police procedure. When several officers visited and saw no one who was Hispanic in the kitchen, they moved on. ‘We offered to give them records, and they said, ‘No, it’s not necessary,’’ said Randy Brochu, whose family owns the business.

Because of such discriminatory targeting, law enforcement may actually be undermined by inhibiting immigrants, both legal and undocumented, from reporting serious crimes:

‘It’s a dangerous route to take,’ said David Urias, a staff lawyer with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which sued Otero County in New Mexico this year after the police raided Hispanics’ homes for minor violations like an unleashed dog. ‘What you’re going to see,’ Mr. Urias said, ‘is more people pushed into the shadows.’

Ultimately a shroud of fear has surrounded those immigrants that remain in Milton:

In the immigrant community, fears now cloud the most basic routines. Many Hispanics said they avoided being seen or heard speaking Spanish in Wal-Mart, even if they live here legally. Others detailed their habit of meticulously checking their cars’ headlights, blinkers and registration to avoid being pulled over.

The story of Milton, Florida reminds of us of the serious consequences that can result from placing greater powers into the hands of local law enforcement. With 1,562 bills introduced and 240 enacted in the states in 2007, pressure will probably continue to promote such action. Before chipping away at the federal preemption of immigration law, however, communities and officials should think twice.

Full article available here.

Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund