Newark shootings lead to immigration debate

The arrest of an illegal immigrant in the Aug. 4 slaying fosters a discussion about law enforcement.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The execution-style slaying of three college students in a quiet, leafy part of Newark has galvanized this crime-weary city.

Mostly, it's brought determination to quell the street violence that has already claimed 60 lives this year.

But the illegal immigration status of one of the suspects is prompting a divisive debate here about what role local police should play when they encounter people they suspect are in the US illegally.

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Currently, federal authorities encourage local police to alert them if the police arrest someone suspected of being undocumented, but officers aren't required to. Many cities like Newark have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy about immigration status, in order to encourage cooperation with police and the reporting of crimes in immigrant communities.

But the arrest of Jose Lachira Carranza, an illegal immigrant from Peru who was out on bail awaiting trial on assault and child rape charges, has raised new questions about such policies.

A Newark city councilman says he'll introduce legislation that would require police to alert federal authorities immediately when they arrest on a felony charge anyone they suspect is illegal. Opponents say that would only instill fear and more distrust of the police in this richly mixed ethnic city, discouraging witnesses and victims from reporting crimes.

While the recent killings have added urgency to the debate here, hundreds of communities around the country are grappling with similar questions, in part because Congress has not enacted comprehensive immigration reform.

Almost 150 bills in 34 states have been introduced this year that would do things such as deny bail to people suspected of being undocumented and increase funding for local enforcement of immigration laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three states – Florida, Alabama, and Arizona – have also entered into memorandums of understanding with the Department of Homeland Security to allow some state law-enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws. Ten counties – in states including California, Georgia, and Tennessee – have similar agreements.

Advocates say such local involvement helps discourage illegal immigrants from coming to the US.

"Anytime you have someone who shouldn't have been here in the first place, someone who's violated the law, they should be looking over their shoulder," says Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR.) "They should be nervous and not be made to feel comfortable here."

But opponents, including the chiefs of many large city police departments, contend that requiring local police to inquire about immigration status and report it to the federal government will undermine trust and cooperation.

"If the police are seen as immigration agents, immigrants won't come forward to report crimes," says Michele Waslin, director of immigration policy research at the National Council of La Raza in Washington.

In Newark, the Ivy Hill Park Apartments are across the street from the playground where police say Mr. Carranza and five others shot the college students after a night of drinking. Despite the brutal killing, most of the residents interviewed believe the city police should not change their policy – which essentially leaves immigration issues to the federal government.

"Police here already have too much to worry about. They shouldn't have to deal with immigration, too," says Jerry Battle, who was waiting to catch a bus outside his apartment building to go to work.

Shaheed Saidith agrees, but for a different reason. "People already don't want nothing to do with the police, especially around here," he says. Green-card checks would only make things worse, he says.

Nishath Kahn, who works as a beauty consultant at the nearby Walgreens, thinks the police should focus on people like Carranza. "Don't judge everybody," she says. "Just because he's illegal, it doesn't mean that everyone who is [illegal] is a murderer."

Because of the amorphous nature of the undocumented population, it's difficult to assess how many are involved in criminal activity. It's estimated there are 12 million illegal immigrants in the US. A 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office found that 55,000 of the inmates in federal and state prisons and local jails were illegal immigrants when they were arrested. A 2007 study by the Immigration Policy Center, a pro-immigrant think tank, found that "among men age 18-39 (who comprise the vast majority of the prison population), the 3.5 percent incarceration rate of the native-born in 2000 was 5 times higher than the 0.7 percent incarceration rate of the foreign-born." In other words, illegal immigrants were far less likely to be in jail for crimes than native-born Americans.

Some Newark residents, like Zeta Coleman, who's lived in the Ivy Hill complex for 30 years, think that instead of worrying about people's immigration status, the city should instead put more resources into dealing with crime, no matter who commits it.

In fact, with the help of $3 million in corporate donations, the city this week announced it will install a cutting-edge surveillance system to detect gunshots. And on Thursday, Mayor Cory Booker was to announce an initiative to stop the flow of illegal guns into neighborhoods.

"They should have done that a long time ago," says Ms. Coleman.

But there are some residents who do believe that local police should be involved in checking immigration status. They think it could help avert other tragedies.

Mary Phillips came from Nigeria 12 years ago and is now a US citizen.

"Everybody should have to show their identity," she says. "If we don't, we put our lives in danger because some of those illegals ...commit crimes.... So it's a good idea to make everybody show who they are."

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