Police Who Nab Illegal Aliens

Tracking down criminals often requires teamwork at many levels of law enforcement. This month, for instance, a joint federal, state, and local task force caught 10,000 fugitives in a coordinated nationwide effort.

Impressive as it was, the question must be asked: Why not use the same scale of teamwork against the largest group of outlaws in the United States - the 10.3 million illegal aliens estimated to be in the country?

As it is, the federal government deploys only some 2,000 immigration agents to nab that tide of humanity - after they've managed to slip past the Border Patrol.

Yet ask any of the 650,000 state and local police in the US if they could easily find illegal immigrants in their jurisdiction, and the answer would probably be "no problem."

Finding illegal immigrants is primarily a federal role. But since Congress isn't adding a whole lot more immigration agents, the jurisdictional divide shouldn't stop police from being far better utilized in this security task.

And police who engage in immigration enforcement shouldn't have to run into division-of-labor walls.

No such wall existed in one of the highest profile immigration cases yet, that of Wal-Mart being fined $11 million this year after its cleaning contractors were caught employing hundreds of illegal immigrants. The tip-off for this crime came from the Pennsylvania police.

States and localities have a strong incentive to worry about illegal immigrants - nearly 5 percent of them have criminal records. The burden of providing education, healthcare, and prison cells for illegal immigrants falls heavily on state and local governments. And these aliens push down wages for legal migrants and Americans, and often don't pay income taxes.

Virginia allows limited police role

Virginia passed a law last year that allows police (after they're trained in immigration law) to ask for proof of an individual's legal presence in the US - but only if they suspect the person has committed a crime other than illegal entry into the US. They still cannot detain someone just for that, at least not for more than 72 hours. Police encounter further frustrations working on immigration cases: Federal authorities don't always return their phone calls and a shortage of federal detention cells means many illegal immigrants often wind up back on the streets.

Other reasons police don't act

State and local governments also have their own roadblocks to cooperation. Officers are often stretched thin, and not adequately trained to deal with the nuances of federal immigration law. And they worry they may be charged with racial profiling if they detain suspected illegal aliens.

Some cities, notably Los Angeles, constrain police with "sanctuary" provisions that inhibit officers from even asking about a person's immigration status. And police often say they'd rather befriend illegal migrants in order to glean tips on criminals.

Those concerns are legitimate, but not insurmountable. What's needed are adjustments by federal officers and state and local forces, and probably, more dollars.

The House of Representatives passed a bill this year, called the Real ID Act of 2005, that among other things, would enhance federal cooperation with state and local police to enforce immigration laws. And a bill expected to be reintroduced in Congress soon would establish a standardized way for officers to communicate with immigration authorities.

Learning about visa law

Police need training in complicated immigration issues - awareness, for instance, that overstaying a visa is a civil, not a criminal, violation. And cities and states can eliminate their sanctuary policies, as Arizona looks set to do. On the federal side, agents must be properly set up to handle state and local immigration calls.

Public frustration at government's difficulty in enforcing existing immigration law was expressed recently in the highly questionable action of the Arizona Minutemen - a group of citizens who recently took it upon themselves to help nab illegal migrants along the Arizona-Mexico border.

Adding police officers to immigration enforcement would enhance public safety. There may be a line in the sand over who does what, but a lot more reaching can be done across that line to better ensure the rule of law.

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