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New US Proposal Raises Concern Among Activists, Immigrant Communities - 2002-05-31


A new U.S. Justice Department proposal to use state and local police agencies to help enforce immigration laws is generating a growing debate about the wisdom of the policy. Immigration activists and police officials in many cities have said the policy could undermine cooperation between the police and immigrant communities.

Local offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Services are complaining they lack the resources and staff to fully enforce immigration laws that have been expanded since the September 11 terrorist attacks. The U.S. administration now is debating a proposal from the Department of Justice to get local police to help.

Immigration activist Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza said that means police could be asked to deal with immigration issues like visa violations, a task usually reserved for immigration inspectors.

"Essentially what we're talking about is allowing the local police in the context of traffic stops, investigations of domestic violence, whatever else their daily work is essentially gives them permission to ask for immigration papers," Ms. Munoz said.

That has raised alarms in the immigrant community and among many state and city law enforcement agencies. Critics of the proposal say it will blur the lines between criminal and civil law and weaken the link between the police and immigrant communities they serve.

Arturo Venegas is Chief of Police in Sacramento, California. He worries that immigrants now willing to cooperate with the police may hesitate for fear their immigration status will be questioned. "This policy, when you really analyze it, is not to address the September 11th terrorists or those we believe are responsible in planning any future terrorist acts. In fact, as it has been shown time and time again in Colorado or California, the people targeted by those policies are Latinos. The policy is going to be enforced for the wrong people for the wrong reason," Mr. Venegas said.

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies disagrees. "The people who would be reluctant to work with the police in this circumstance would be illegal aliens or who have close illegal alien family members. Legal immigrants don't have anything to worry about because they're permanent residents of the United States and have the same relationship with the police as any other legal resident," he said.

Mr. Krikorian, favors tighter immigration laws and suggests that extending immigration policing duties to state and local authorities would help, not hinder their work.

"The point of this kind of measure is not to turn all policemen into INS officials but rather to give local police an extra tool to help them do their jobs," he said.

A few states already do collaborate with INS policing efforts. But immigration activist Cecilia Munoz said the programs are limited and have clear-cut ground rules and training procedures for specific actions.

The public debate over immigration policing methods has intensified since it was learned that several of the terrorists who carried out the September attacks had violated U.S. immigration laws.

The administration's war on terrorism includes improving enforcement of the immigration laws. But immigration activists express concerns the campaign against terrorism could abuse the civil rights of legitimate immigrants too.

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