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Commentary: Local police shouldn't enforce immigration law

  • Story Highlights
  • Federal and local law enforcement entities not interchangeable, columnist says
  • Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Immigrants need to be able to trust local law enforcement
  • If they don't, then they may not cooperate as witnesses or report crimes
  • Navarrette: Using local police for immigration could backfire, lead to more crime
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- The wacky world of immigration reform is full of half-baked ideas, but none has the taste of having spent less time in the oven than letting local cops enforce federal immigration law.


Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Using local law enforcement in immigration matters will end badly.

As the son of a retired cop who spent 37 years on the job, and someone who has seen firsthand how much havoc this policy can wreak, let me be clear: No. No. No. It's a dreadful idea that never goes away. In fact, someone should drive a wooden stake through its heart.

Listen to the experts. And I don't mean right-wing pundits, who have never worn a badge. I'm talking about men and women who have spent their careers in law enforcement. Most police chiefs in the country, and many rank-and-file officers, are smart enough to balk at enforcing immigration law. But the law enforcement community isn't monolithic. There are younger officers who are eager to jump into the muck and enforce immigration law. Many of the veteran officers know better and oppose it.

Meanwhile, politicians foolishly rush in. In December 2005, the Costa Mesa, California, City Council made that city the first in the United States to take advantage of a Justice Department program that trains local officers to enforce immigration law.

Now the issue is raging in Phoenix, Arizona, where media hound Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio struck an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, authorizing the training of 100 deputies to arrest illegal immigrants who pose a threat to national security or public safety. Among the more than 1,000 people arrested so far: corn vendors scooped off city streets. You know the world is a dangerous place when food vendors are considered a threat to national security.

Things also are heating up in Irving, Texas, where police officers are using -- some say abusing -- an ICE initiative called the Criminal Alien Program, which allows local police departments to detain illegal immigrants who have been accused of a crime. That sounds reasonable enough, except for the complaints streaming in that Irving police officers are engaging in racial profiling by rounding up anyone who looks Hispanic who isn't carrying his papers.

This will end badly. Local immigrant communities need to be able to trust law enforcement, or they'll never cooperate with them as witnesses or report crimes when they're the victims. Word will get out that the immigrant communities are good prey, because the people there never go to the police. An initiative intended to fight crime could backfire and lead to more of it.

Besides, federal immigration officials couldn't care less what trouble local officials get into while playing border patrol agent. If there is racial profiling, and lawsuits start to fly, the feds will leave the locals holding the bag. You see, "interagency cooperation" stops at the courtroom door.

Yet some people still think that law enforcement entities are interchangeable and that one badge is as good as another. For those who believe that, the world of cops and robbers is a delightfully simple place. Law enforcement officers chase down criminals. Illegal immigrants are criminals. Ergo, local law enforcement should chase down illegal immigrants.

Sure. I'll buy that --- the next time I see FBI agents writing speeding tickets.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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