Alabama state trooper Gary Hetzel usually stops people for going over the speed limit. Now, he sometimes arrests them for illegally crossing over the U.S. border, too.
Recently he pulled over a van for speeding and ended up detaining 14 undocumented immigrants who had paid smugglers at the Mexican border to transport them to Atlanta. The van’s driver and co-driver were charged with human smuggling; the 14 immigrants were deported. “If I hadn’t been trained, I would have just ticketed the driver for speeding and sent them on their way,” said Mr. Hetzel.
Such actions are normally the province of federal immigration agents. But even though some police groups have concerns, a slew of cities and states in the U.S. are increasingly taking on the duty of verifying the immigration status of people stopped for traffic infractions and other violations. In Alabama, about 160 illegal immigrants have been arrested since the state entered a special partnership in 2003 with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of Homeland Security, or ICE as it is known. Under this arrangement, officers such as Mr. Hetzel are specially trained in some immigration enforcement duties.
Alabama decided to join the program because local officials believed ICE’s small staff in the state was unable to cope with the swelling numbers of illegal immigrants. Last fall, Gov. Bob Riley pledged to double the number of state troopers trained to deal with illegal immigrants, saying: “Alabama welcomes those who enter the country legally, but we won’t stand idly by and do nothing when we catch illegal immigrants in our state.”
Forty-four of the 650 state troopers in the state, a figure that includes administrative and field officers, have taken the five-week training course and are now authorized to enforce federal immigration law. That training involves detecting false identification, understanding the details of federal immigration law as well as the pitfalls of racial profiling and other possible civil-rights violations.
The ICE partnership empowers local officers to temporarily detain someone who has violated federal immigration law—something that they are typically not allowed to do. That is a valuable tool in states where there are few ICE agents. The trained officers usually don’t participate in sweeps or actively search for illegal immigrants; the emphasis is on human smugglers and convicted felons that officers come across during the course of their duties.
The federal program to train local police officers in such duties has existed since 1996. Florida, the first state to join the federal program in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, tailored its version to help block possible terrorist infiltrators. Interest in the program has taken off recently as the national debate over illegal immigration has heated up.
Some critics argue that federal authorities are specialists and therefore better suited to handling specific tasks such as immigration enforcement. Lisa Navarrete, a vice president for the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the U.S., says that local police officers who enforce immigration law are bound to engage in racial profiling, in part because they are stopping people they meet during the course of the day instead of pursuing specific investigations based on solid leads.
RICHMOND—Hispanic leaders, immigrants and illegal aliens yesterday lobbied the General Assembly to oppose pending measures that they say would scare people and hurt the state’s economy, as the House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved bills that would toughen Virginia’s immigration laws.
The House yesterday approved on a 77-22 vote a measure that would give 50 state troopers the authority to detain illegal aliens.
Also, delegates today are expected to pass a bill that denies illegal aliens college admission and a measure that requires students who cannot prove their legal presence to pay out-of-state tuition rates, even if they graduated from a Virginia high school.
The approval of the trooper bill comes a day after Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, told The Washington Times that he thinks immigration ranks low on the list of priorities among Virginians.
“It does matter to a number of people, but compared to jobs, education, health care, transportation, it’s pretty far down,” he said.
Yesterday, leaders who attended the Latino Lobby Day said they oppose the measures pending in the Republican-controlled legislature as “anti-immigrant.”
The groups lobbying against the measures yesterday included the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Most of the protesters came from Northern Virginia, and several said privately that they were illegals.
Michel Zajur, president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said the House’s actions will hurt the state’s businesses.
“We have a growing, thriving economy, and a lot of this is because of the Hispanic community,” he said. “The immigration system is broken, and we can’t fix it on a state-by-state level because it puts Virginia at a disadvantage.”
The higher-education bills, favored to pass the House today, are expected to be killed by a Senate panel, as they have been in the past.