County Executive Steve Levy’s proposal to “deputize” Suffolk police and make them immigration agents is provoking protests from advocates who say it will alienate newcomers from cops and make them reluctant to report crimes for fear they will be deported.
Only two other places in the country—southwest Florida and Alabama—have deputized law enforcement officials, giving them the same powers as immigration agents. Police departments around the country generally oppose the idea because they say it builds walls between them and immigrants, and they don’t want to mix criminal law enforcement and civil immigration law.
“I think it’d be a disaster both for the immigrant community and for everyone else in Suffolk County because it means that people are going to be afraid of reporting crimes,” said Patrick Young of the pro-immigrant Long Island Immigrant Alliance. The plan would “destroy any trust the immigrant community had in the police.”
Despite the concerns, Levy strongly defends his position. He contends deputization could be a valuable tool in his new campaign to combat unscrupulous landscaping and home improvement contractors who depend on undocumented immigrants from Latin America for their manpower.
“We’re the first administration that is refusing to ignore what has become an illegal, underground economy that exploits workers, residents and those companies that try to play by the rules,” Levy said.
Deputization is a new and little understood concept. Police departments nationwide already have the power to report to immigration authorities undocumented immigrants who commit criminal offenses, and often do. But deputization expands their powers, allowing them to detain immigrants solely for being undocumented. It also allows them to more easily question immigrants about their legal status and to initiate deportation proceedings. For instance, when making routine traffic stops police can ask to see immigrants’ legal papers.
To be deputized, police officers must undergo formal training by the Department of Homeland Security for several weeks, with the training paid for by local authorities. Levy said he hopes to implement a deputization pilot program in one precinct, and expand it if successful. He can order the plan on his own and does not need authorization from the Suffolk County Legislature.
Publicly, Suffolk police officials say they are open to the proposal. “It’s worth a try out here and we’ll see what happens,” said Insp. Robert Ponzo of the 6th Precinct, which includes Farmingville.
But privately, some police officials call the idea misguided. “I don’t want to get involved” because the immigrants generally are hard-working people who aren’t a threat to society, said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The proposal is part of a campaign Levy launched this summer to crack down on contractors. To enforce the plan, police officers are conducting sting operations against contractors, requiring them to show they are licensed and following other laws such as paying workman’s compensation insurance. Contractors also will be required to show proof—“I-9” forms—that their employees are legally authorized to work, Levy said.
As he weighs adding deputization to the campaign, Levy is staking out territory few public leaders have ventured into.
Supporters of deputization say it acts as a “multiplier” to supplement federal immigration agents. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said there are only 2,000 immigration agents in the country not including those assigned to the border, but 700,000 local police officers. There are an estimated 8 million to 10 million undocumented immigrants.
“It’s a good idea,” Krikorian said. “The benefits are enormous. The costs, if any, are quite small.”
Critics say the policy can cripple police efforts like those during the 2002 sniper shootings in the capital area. At one point, then-INS head James Ziglar and Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose appeared on television to plead with undocumented immigrants to contact police because they believed some witnessed some of the shootings but were afraid to come forward.
Deputization is “fuzzy and it’s radical and it’s got serious consequences,” said Angela Kelly of the National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C. “It’s about the most damaging thing that could happen to an [immigrant] community.”
Attorney Gen. John Ashcroft opened the door to deputization in 2002, and that year officials in southwest Florida were the first in the nation to adopt the plan, training 35 agents.
But E.J. Picolo, special agent in charge of the Ft. Meyers office of Florida Department of Law Enforcement—a kind of state FBI—said their program is focused narrowly on finding terrorists. They generally do not target undocumented Mexican migrant farm workers who pick tomatoes and oranges.
The 9/11 terrorists “are the kinds of folks we’re looking for, not an illiterate Mexican individual who’s struggling to make a living,” he said. “In my opinion, we’d be taking our eye off the ball to do stuff like that.”
In Alabama, the State Department of Public Safety deputized 23 agents last year to try to crack down on the use of phony documents to obtain driver’s licenses and people’s failure to obtain car insurance. Col. Mike Coppage, head of the department, said the program also is narrowly focused and not intended as a massive crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
“We do not want to go out and be INS agents and do massive sweeps and raid orchard and chicken factories,” he said.
If deputization comes to Suffolk County, many immigrants—already nervous about Levy’s contractor crackdown—say they would drift even more into the shadows. “It would be very different in terms of approaching the police” to report a crime, said Mexican day laborer Jesus Alcaraz, 31, as he stood on a corner in Farmingville this week waiting for work. “Instead of approaching them, I’d run away.”
Still, Levy’s proposal and crackdown are gaining some support. “I’m so pleased, proud and relieved to have a county executive stand up and take on this issue full-force,” said Joseph Caracappa, presiding officer of the Suffolk Legislature.
He was speaking at a meeting last week hosted by former members of the controversial Sachem Quality of Life Organization where Levy also spoke to the public for the first time about his deputization plan.
At the meeting, the former SQL members, who have formed a new group called Greater Farmingville Community Association, handed out literature calling the Mexican day laborers “low-level terrorists” who have “invaded” and “occupied” the United States.
Levy said he disapproves of such language, but added that most of the 80 people at the meeting had legitimate concerns about the immigrants such as overcrowded housing. “All you want to do is enforce the law,” Levy told the crowd.
‘I think it’d be a disaster both for the immigrant community and for everyone else in Suffolk County because it means that people are going to be afraid of reporting crimes.
—Patrick Young of the Island Immigrant Alliance
‘We’re the first administration that is refusing to ignore what has become an illegal, underground economy that exploits workers, residents and those companies that try to play by the rules.’
— Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy