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Houston Police Given OK to Ask Suspects' Immigration Status

The city of Houston has changed its policy of restricting police officers from questioning the immigration status of people who are detained for minor violations. This follows the murder of a veteran police officer in which the suspect is an illegal immigrant from Mexico.

Even before the murder of police officer Rodney Johnson last month, critics of Houston's policy towards illegal immigrants had been demanding changes. The killing of the 12-year police veteran, who left behind a wife and five children, produced a wave of outrage after it was learned that the suspect is an illegal immigrant from Mexico, who had been deported previously after being charged with having sex with a child.

The previous policy did not allow officers to inquire about immigration status unless the person they had detained was suspected of a serious crime. The new policy will permit officers to fingerprint suspects held for traffic violations or other minor crimes to see if they are wanted by federal authorities for defying deportation orders or have been previously deported for criminal activity.

Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt rejects critics who say the previous policy amounted to providing sanctuary for illegal immigrants.

"The city of Houston, and I want to say this very loud and clear, has never been a sanctuary city and is taking these additional steps to help further protect the safety and security of our residents," said Harold Hurtt.

Under the new policy, police will still be barred from asking the immigration status of people who are not under arrest and they cannot arrest a person solely because that person is suspected of being in the country illegally. Houston Mayor Bill White says the new policy will provide greater protection from illegal immigrants who are dangerous criminals, without having police acting as immigration agents.

"We listen to the rank-and-file officers and the command staff to implement policies to go after criminals," said Bill White.

Critics of the Houston police policy, however, are not satisfied. The leader of one citizens' group says police should detain people they suspect of being in the country illegally and turn them over to federal authorities.

Hispanic groups, on the other hand, defend the current policy, saying that most immigrants are not criminals and are only here to work.

Federal immigration agents say the new policy will be a big help for their efforts to track down illegal aliens who are criminals and those who have previously deported for criminal activity only to return again.