Groups Fret Over Giving Police Immigration Control

A federal anti-crime bill would require state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws — or risk the loss of some funds.

Supporters of the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act (search) said that there are only about 2,000 federal immigration agents and as many as 80,000 immigrants with final deportation orders who have criminal convictions. The so-called CLEAR Act would simply clarify the role state and local law enforcement officials can assume regarding immigration matters, they said.

"The fact is, individuals in all communities, including immigrant communities, want criminal aliens off their streets," said bill author Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., in a prepared statement. "That is exactly what the CLEAR Act will do."

But opponents fear that if passed, the act could lead to police abuse and civil right violations against immigrants and minorities. They argue that local police do not have the time and resources to enforce complex immigration laws — and that requiring them to do so opens the door to a surge in abuses against immigrants.

"[Police] are not familiar with immigration law," said Raj Goyle, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (search).  "It makes no sense for the neighborhood police to be checking up on whether someone filed a visa waiver form in time."

Opponents also worry that the bill would make undocumented immigrants even less likely to go to the police when they are victims of a crime.

"We absolutely do not enforce any immigration law," said Montgomery County, Md., Police Capt. John Fitzgerald. "We encourage our residents to trust their police department regardless of their immigration status."

He said that inquiring into residents' legal status would only strain a relationship with people born in other countries. Almost 27 percent of Montgomery County residents are foreign-born, the highest rate in Maryland, according to the 2000 Census.

"We want them to know that if they are victims, we'll help them, and if they are witnesses, we need their help," Fitzgerald said.

In addition to requiring that local police departments enforce immigration laws, the bill would also list people with civil immigration violations in the National Crime Information Center (search), and speed deportation procedures.

The bill is a way to make sure that "someone who's potentially a national security danger" does not slip through the cracks, said Lisa Wright, spokeswoman for Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., one of more than 100 co-sponsors of the measure.

"It's a way of having more coordination" between local, state and federal law enforcement, she said, while "respecting the civil rights of individuals."

The bill is still far from law, having had a hearing earlier this month before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, but no votes yet.

While police departments that agree to participate in the program would be eligible for new federal aid, those that refuse could lose access to a federal fund that reimburses local agencies for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants. That fund, which is set at $400 million this year, would grow to $1 billion under the bill.

Not everyone is convinced that it is a step that needs to be taken.

"We're all against terrorism," said Jeredine Williams, director of Migrant and Refugee Cultural Support Inc. (search) "But enough care has to be exercised by police so that they don't infringe on civil liberties."

Norwood said the anti-crime legislation could actually reduce civil rights abuses by police officers. The act would give local police access for the first time to "training on immigration laws and how to prevent civil rights abuses." It would make up to $2.5 billion available to those police departments that agreed to participate, his office said.

Others feared that the bill would lead to racial profiling and police harassment.

"We see this particular law as being a huge threat to us, who try to live normal lives in America," said Hasan Mansori, governmental affairs coordinator for the Council of American Islamic Relations (search).

Currently, few local police departments maintain a policy to have officers inquire into an individual's legal status. The bill, however, has drawn support of several national law enforcement agencies.