When responding to an incident, Oakland police will gather the usual who, what, when of those involved. But there's one question they won't ask: Are you here in this country legally?
That's because Oakland calls itself a "sanctuary city," one of dozens across the United States that have policies directing local police or officials to stay out of immigration matters.
For Lt. Chris Mufarreh, who patrols the heavily Hispanic Fruitvale neighborhood, "sanctuary" soothes fears among immigrants about coming forward when they are crime victims or witnesses. But for resident Steve Kemp, who is organizing a protest of the policy, the police are shirking their duty to uphold the law.
Sharply divided views on sanctuary policies are emerging on the national stage. A Florida congresswoman introduced a bill this month that would withhold some federal funds to sanctuary cities. Meanwhile, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has been criticizing rival Rudolph Giuliani for the former mayor's sanctuary policy in New York City.
With the demise of a comprehensive immigration deal this year, in congress opponents of illegal immigration are pushing for greater enforcement mechanisms, including help from local law-enforcement. But for immigrant advocates and many police departments, that goal draws local resources into an area of federal responsibility and undermines successful community policing efforts.
"If police are seen as immigration enforcers, members of immigrant communities will simply be afraid to talk to them," says David Harris, a law professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio and author of "Good Cops," a book on preventive policing. "When that kind of fear is rampant in the community, the predators know this right away."
He cites Austin, Texas, which faced a scourge of violence, particularly against immigrants carrying large amounts of cash. The fix: Offer identification cards for immigrants to open bank accounts and get the word out that police weren't interested in immigration status. Reports from witnesses spiked, followed by a drop in the violence, says Mr. Harris.
Oakland updated its status as a sanctuary city in April following a series of high-profile raids around the Bay Area by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Oakland had been a sanctuary city as part of a movement in the 1980s offering political asylum to certain refugees. Some cities like Oakland and San Francisco have reinvented the concept as a way to disassociate themselves from the stepped-up ICE raids.
The term sanctuary, however, may be a misnomer.
"What's going on now is not really a sanctuary movement… It's a modern community-policing strategy," says Lynn Tramonte, a senior policy associate with the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy organization based in Washington. "It's not as though the police department policies protect foreign-born people from deportation."
Typically, the policies direct cops not to look for violations of immigration law, though some cities allow questions if the person has been booked on a felony.
A few cities including New York, Oakland, and Baltimore extend the "don't ask" policy to all city workers – a move advocates say helps ensure kids get vaccines and adults seek healthcare.
Nearly 70 cities, counties, and states have enacted sanctuary policies, according to a preliminary count by the National Immigration Law Center. The Congressional Research Service in 2006 put the number at 32 cities and counties.
The plethora of ordinances and police department rules has created some confusion, even among officials in Washington.
"People use the term 'sanctuary city' in different ways, so I'm never quite sure what people mean," said Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security (DHS), during a Congressional hearing earlier this month. He called "foolish and counterproductive" those policies that prevent reporting felons for deportation. But, he added, "I'm not aware of any city – although I may be wrong – that actually interferes with our ability to enforce the law."
Mr. Chertoff was responding to Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) of Florida, who introduced legislation recently that would withhold some nonemergency DHS funds to sanctuary cities.
"Imagine that ... one of the ... 9/11 hijackers, who were in the country illegally, had a city they could reside in to plot terrorist attacks with no fear of ever being checked or deported," said Representative Brown-Waite.
Those against sanctuary cities point to a recent case in New Jersey where an illegal immigrant allegedly led an attack that killed three people. The suspect was out on bail for other indictments – despite his immigration status – and there's concern that the information hadn't reached federal immigration officials because Newark is a sanctuary city.
For its part, ICE says that while sanctuary policies won't stop its agents from enforcing immigration law in a city, it does "make it harder." Cities could be shutting themselves off to valuable ICE assistance, such as Operation Community Shield, an antigang effort that has used immigration enforcement to arrest more than 6,000 gang members. Beyond that, the Justice Department has found a technological way to rope police into immigration enforcement. In 2001, the department began adding immigration warrants into a national database once reserved for wanted felons. During any routine stop, police query the database.
"You essentially force people at the local level to act on it, because the departmental policy is if you have warrants you have to take them in," says Harris, who notes the immigration data is not of high quality. Data entered between 2002 and 2004 had an error rate of 42 percent, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute.
For Mr. Kemp, a member of the local Minutemen, the argument over federal versus local responsibilities is moot. "It's an American matter," he says. "The feds aren't doing their job period. So it's up to state and local governments to take care of this problem."
But Lieutenant Mufarreh is happy with the sanctuary policy and the better communication he says it has brought.