Frustrated by illegal immigrant criminals who slip their grasp, a growing number of state and county police agencies nationwide are moving to join a federal program that enlists local officers to enforce immigration laws.
The U.S. government has already granted that authority in Florida and Alabama, and the program is under consideration in Connecticut, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
To the dismay of immigrant advocates, it’s also in the works in Southern California—one of the nation’s most ethnically diverse regions, where it would reverse a long-standing policy of avoiding questions about immigration status during local criminal investigations.
Using local authorities to enforce immigration law has been allowed since 1996, when it was included as part of a broad immigration bill. But no local agencies participated until 2002, when 35 state and local officers in Florida completed the training and were authorized to take action on immigration violations in domestic terrorism investigations.
Alabama trained its first 21 officers in 2003 to deal with what officials called a lack of attention by the federal government to illegal immigration in that state.
State troopers have used the expanded enforcement powers to arrest more than 100 people, including a Mexican man wanted for murder in his country who was captured during a traffic stop and a Nigerian woman using a fraudulent passport to get a driver’s license, said Haran Lowe, a lawyer for the state Department of Public Safety.
Danbury, Conn., Mayor Mark Boughton recently urged his state to join the effort, citing the strain on government services caused by the growing illegal immigrant population in the suburb of New York City.
“The federal government has an inability to do its job as it relates to immigration,” Boughton said. “The fact of the matter is that this is out of control.”
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said he would evaluate the request.
In Los Angeles County, interest in the program is in large part financial.
About 30 percent of the 18,000 jail inmates are foreign-born, but there are only two federal agents assigned to determine who should be deported.
Meanwhile, overcrowding has forced the county to release 200,000 inmates in the past three years before their sentences were completed.
“Our goal is to get them off the street and out of the country so local resources aren’t spent on these individuals,” said sheriff’s Lt. Margarito Robles.
Nativo Lopez, president of the Mexican-American Political Association, said his group and others plan to protest by urging people not to cooperate with law enforcement except in the most extreme cases.
“They are throwing 30 years of cooperation between police and the Latino community out the window,” Lopez said. “It’s a tremendous loss to the public.”