Danny Sigui saw a murder unfold. He called 911 and testified as the key witness during the trial. In the process, he unwittingly alerted officials to his immigration status, and days later was arrested and jailed.
"For doing a good thing, this is what I get," says Mr. Sigui, who came to the US illegally in 1989 from Guatemala. He was deported back there in late October.
The episode has turned a spotlight on the tension between local officials and federal immigration authorities when it comes to deciding how best to keep the public safe.
Advocates for immigrants and many police officers insist that immigrants are less likely to cooperate with law-enforcement officials if they fear deportation. In fact, many police support confidentiality policies, which discourage them from reporting an immigrant's status.
Opponents, however, say "sanctuary laws" encourage more illegal immigration, undermine America's war on terrorism, and contravene federal immigration laws.
The debate has moved forward nationally as Congress considers legislation that in effect would deputize local and state police as federal immigration officers. Under the CLEAR Act, police would be responsible for pursuing undocumented immigrants for visa violations or lose certain federal funds.
The argument for these policies is that "whoever has the resources" should enforce borders, says Sarah Paoletti, a human rights lawyer at the Washington College of Law at American University.
"The argument against it is [that] immigration law is just so complicated, that to try to effectively handle it by local police ... can lead to lots of abuses. You don't want to have a
have a disincentive for witnesses to come forward."
Sigui, for one, says he isn't sure he'd come forward again, if he could relive that fateful night in December, 2001. He was replacing the distributor in his Jeep Cherokee in Central Falls, R.I., when he heard a fight break out, which quickly spiraled into a fatal stabbing.
"Danny said that if something happened to his family, he would have wanted someone to come forward," says Gregory Pehrson at Progreso Latino in Central Falls. "He thought it was the right thing to do."
Sigui's testimony was crucial when the murder case went to trial last summer in the Providence County Superior Court. On June 23, Robert Silvia was found guilty of killing Joseph Lima outside the Somewhere Else Bar. Two days later, Sigui was arrested by immigration officials.
His case has provoked outrage in Central Falls, a working-class, immigrant community near Providence.
"Sanctuary laws," which have been in place in traditional immigrant gateways like New York, San Francisco, and Houston since the 1980s, have been a divisive issue, especially since 9/11. Last summer, US Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado tried to cut off Justice Department funding for "sanctuary" cities.
Critics say confidentiality policies are not only illegal under the 1996 federal immigration law, they are moral infractions. "They allow illegal immigrants to establish themselves as residents and possibly commit an act of terrorism against American families," says David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). "They shelter would-be terrorists from federal detection."
In the wake of Sigui's deportation, Matthew Jerzyk, the director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, launched efforts to create a confidentiality policy in Providence, Central Falls, and other nearby communities. Such a policy would not necessarily have protected Sigui, since it was not the police who contacted the Department of Homeland Security but the Rhode Island attorney general's office. Still, Mr. Jerzyk says what happened to Sigui has created fear.
"What is going to happen in our very large immigrant community if others say, 'I'm not going to step forward and testify. They may research me and possibly punish me, and deport me back to the dangerous country from which I fled.' "
Jerzyk modeled his policy, still a work in progress, after New York City's, which was modified in September. That executive order bars city employees from inquiring about immigration status because it is considered a privacy issue, like sexual orientation, unless there is suspicion of criminal activity.
The CLEAR Act, which has more than 100 cosponsors in the House, would officially undo such policies, however. With only some 5,500 federal agents available for enforcement in areas beyond the border, supporters of the legislation say that local police officers play a vital role in helping protect the nation's borders.
The issue remains a polarizing topic: The California Police Chiefs Association has criticized the CLEAR Act, introduced by Rep. Charlie Norwood (R) of Georgia; the National Sheriffs' Association has endorsed the idea.
Immigrant advocates say critics who claim such policies protect potential terrorists overlook an important point. "If there is a terrorist [in the neighborhood]," says Michele Waslin of National Council of La Raza, "it is likely that the immigrants in those communities will be the ones to know something about that activity."
What's more, they say, the legislation will hurt the most vulnerable, like battered women, who may fear deportation more than their abusive relationships, says Gail Pendleton, associate director at the National Immigration Project in Boston. Her group helped establish a special visa to enable victimized women to gain temporary legal status. But like other visas, the amnesty program is not easily accessible, nor is amnesty always granted.
Ms. Pendleton says the CLEAR Act would be likely to unwind years of work. "There will be no safety for noncitizens," she says. "It will create a complete underground society."
Sigui, who gave police the alias Victor Estrada because of his illegal status, says he wasn't afraid to cooperate. "My life was in order... I thought, 'This can't get too serious.' "
His status came up during the AG's routine background check, which revealed not only that their witness had several aliases, but that he had been deported (under the name Hugo Garcia) in 1993. The AG's office says under federal law it was obligated to contact the Department of Homeland Security.
"They never told me," says Sigui, who has three children in the US and was engaged to be married to Mary Cordero, an American, in August. "They just showed up to arrest me."
On Dec. 19, Sigui married Ms. Cordero in Guatemala and the couple plan to begin an appeals process. He hopes to return to his family in the US someday. "I wish it could be tomorrow," he says. "But it could take years."
"[The attorney general] feels really bad about what happened to Danny Sigui, Victor Estrada, Hugo Garcia," says spokes-man Mike Healey. "He did a great service. He did the right thing."