After two decades of a strict firewall between Los Angeles police and federal immigration authorities, the LAPD is writing new guidelines for officers on how to interpret rules for treating illegal immigrants.
The policy, which prevents LAPD officers from inquiring about a person’s immigration status, was instituted in 1979 by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates as part of an attempt to encourage illegal immigrants who had witnessed or been victims of crimes to cooperate with police without fear of deportation.
But some officers have complained that the policy prevents them from arresting convicted felons who have illegally reentered the United States after being deported to their home countries. The LAPD is working on language that would direct officers who see suspects they believe to be felons in the U.S. illegally to call their supervisors for a check with immigration officials, Assistant Police Chief George Gascon said. If a person is determined to be here illegally, federal authorities would seek an arrest warrant from a judge. At that point, LAPD officers could arrest the suspect.
The move comes several months after the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department changed its policy and began checking the immigration status of foreign-born inmates in County Jail and turning illegal immigrants over to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Additionally, the LAPD’s Rampart Division has been working with immigration officials on a special task force designed to crack down on violent gangs whose members go back and forth from the U.S. to Central America.
Such ideas have raised concerns among some immigration rights activists, who fear the partnerships with federal immigration officials will erode local law enforcement’s hard-won credibility among illegal immigrants.
“The problem is it is a slippery slope,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “It would be a problem if officers questioned anyone about their immigration status because they suspected they had been deported in the past because of a crime.”
LAPD officials said they know they are engaged in a delicate balancing act. They emphasized that the clarification does not change the essence of the rule, known as Special Order 40, and that illegal immigrants do not need to worry that they will be deported simply because they have contact with police.