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Oppenheim: Immigration showdown in Texas

  • Story Highlights
  • Illegal immigrants say they fear new crackdown
  • Authorities running immigration checks on all people arrested in Irving
  • Deportations up sharply since crackdown began
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In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news and analyze the stories behind the events. Keith Oppenheim is covering the controversy in Irving, Texas over authorities' efforts to find illegal immigrants.

IRVING, Texas -- I certainly don't think I look like a cop. With a blue blazer, and scruffy khakis I take into the field, I have that look of a reporter who's trying to dress up just enough to be professional, but no more.

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Protesters in Irving, Texas, demonstrate against a program that checks the immigration status of anyone arrested.

So, it came as a surprise to me when I learned some Latino men, day laborers who were standing around and hoping to get some work, thought I was a federal immigration officer.

"You thought I was from immigration?" I asked one.

"Si", the man replied. My producer, Patricia Pedraza, translated the rest. "The fear is with both immigration and the police. Now you cannot trust absolutely anybody."

In Irving, Texas, a Dallas suburb of about 200,000 people, right next to the big airport, an estimated 40 percent of the city is Latino, and anecdotally, we're told there are a lot of undocumented workers here, people who are in the U.S. illegally, but clearly don't view themselves as criminals.

"They take innocent people, they think we're all the same," another undocumented worker told me.

The fear is a reaction to what's called the Criminal Alien Program. Since September of last year, Irving police started to refer anyone arrested in their community to federal authorities, who check their immigration status.

"It's only for people who have violated Texas laws, and are arrested and brought into the Irving jail," said Larry Boyd, Irving's police chief.

"Out in the Open"
Rick Sanchez reports from Irving, Texas on the fears illegal immigrants say they're facing in America
Tonight, 8 p.m. ET

As a result, referrals for deportations have shot up to 1,600, more than 40 times the number from the year before. Statistics from police show that while some of those referrals were for people who committed serious crimes, the majority were a result of misdemeanors and traffic warrants. Many sources told me that a growing number of Latinos here are afraid to drive. The risk is being caught with a suspended license, going to jail and getting deported. Video See the effect the program has had on Irving »

But if some in the Latino community are lying low, advocates for immigrants are speaking out -- accusing the city and police of targeting Latinos without cause.

"We believe the Criminal Alien Program is fundamentally wrong," says Carlos Quintanilla, an activist. "That there is racial profiling going on."

The city's mayor, Herbert Gears, disagrees. He says police are not taking on the role of immigration officers.

"We will make sure people are being treated fairly," he said. "That people aren't being pulled over because of the color of their skin."

As I spent more time in Irving, I came to realize that outside the large Latino community, there is broad support for the program.

"You have to start somewhere," said Sheik Shah, an Irving resident who emigrated to the U.S. from India and is now an American citizen. "Because right now, we have so many loopholes for people to come in here and work illegally."

Some were more direct. I read from two tall stacks of printed e-mail addressed to the City Council, which were overwhelmingly supported the Criminal Alien Program. One read: "Please help deport all illegals. What part of illegal do they not understand?" Another: "Thank God some people are doing something about this invasion."

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In the end, Irving is in the middle of a profound disagreement, between those who feel it's wrong to refer people to immigration authorities for nonviolent crimes and misdemeanors, and those who believe illegal immigration has gone too far -- that something has to be done.

As Irving City Council member Beth Van Duyne told me: "We need to know who is in our city. If you're committing a crime, we need to know who you are. I don't think that's too much to ask." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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