In the 1980 Mariel boatlift, more than 100,000 Cubans fled their country on rickety boats, inner tubes, and makeshift rafts, inundating Florida shores as well as federal immigration, law enforcement, and welfare agencies.
That "immigration emergency" has not been equalled since in volume, but uncomfortable echoes of it come with the financial, legal, and political challenges brought by each new wave of illegal immigrants. A remedy for that sort of mass immigration emergency, passed by Congress in 1996 but not finalized until recently, allows the US attorney general to deputize local police to enforce immigration laws a mingling of enforcement powers never permitted before.
Though passed by Congress as part of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the timing of the measure, which takes effect Friday, raises concern among immigrant-rights and civil- liberties advocates. They say that in the suspicion-ridden climate of the war on terror, Attorney General John Ashcroft might try to use the new provision to target certain immigrants in the name of homeland security.
"What is the definition of an immigration emergency?" asks Kitty Ufford-Chase, program director for the American Friends Service Committee in Tucson. "It leaves it very open for those in positions of power to define it to meet their needs and agendas."
Many local police departments are not eager to get involved in immigration law enforcement with their own budgets already stretched to the limit. And, more important, they don't want to strain fragile relationships with immigrant communities.
While the idea of having local police enforce federal immigration law may sound good on paper, the consequences for local governments are not as appealing, says Susan Martin, director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University in Washington.
Detention, for instance, raises the question of who pays for holding these immigrants in police custody before the Immigration and Naturalization Service gets around to processing them, she says.
The concept has divided police nationwide. Last week, Florida announced that it had signed the first special agreement with the Justice Department under which 35 law-enforcement officers will be trained and deputized to arrest immigrants deemed a threat to national security.
Some states are considering similar agreements, but others are adamantly opposed. In Arizona, Gov. Jane Hull says she won't let her state officers take on such federal duties.
"If they need help, then they should add to the federal resources," says Francie Noyes, the governor's press secretary.
(Indeed, part of the Justice Department's problem is its own limits of budget and manpower several thousand border-patrol officers have left the agency this year, frustrated by low pay.)
In addition to the financial strain on state and local agencies, some say there are larger issues to consider. Getting immigrants to report crime will become more difficult if they believe they could be picked up on immigration violations. Most police departments have had long-standing policies that prevent initiating investigations based on immigration status.
"We've spent decades establishing trust ... with our very diverse immigrant communities," says Dave Cohen, San Diego Police spokesman. "If there is an immigration emergency tied to criminal activity, of course we'll assist. But if it is simply an immigration violation ... we will not be involved."
The finalizing of the new provision is simply a matter of coincidence, not a concerted effort by Mr. Ashcroft to gain broader control in the immigration arena, says Angela Kelley, of the National Immigration Forum in Washington. Others think it's part of a poorly received Justice Department opinion, floated back in April, that said local police agencies have the authority to enforce immigration law, regardless of emergency.
"The attorney general has not kept secret his desire to roll out the big guns when it comes to immigration. What is holding him back is the law," says Ms. Kelley. "And this law gives him very narrow authority."
"It may be a coincidence," says Timothy Edgar, of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, "but it's being perceived as one more step towards the possibility of the Bush administration involving state and local police officers in immigration issues."
The Justice Department notes that this new provision began under the Clinton administration. And the department has said that the provision would be activated on a limited basis in both geography and time and only for specific emergencies of mass immigration.