Don't make cops squeal on undocumented workers

Cities that took a hands-off approach saw crime drop.

Imagine living in a state where local cops can stop anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, and arrest them if they lack proof of citizenship. Last month, Rhode Island Gov. Donald Carcieri signed an executive order directing state police to enforce federal immigration law, which will let them do just that.

The order is designed to relieve a financial burden on Rhode Island's residents. But few reforms could make residents less safe.

From Phoenix, Ariz., to Prince William County, Va., from big-city mayors to small-town councilmen, lawmakers like Governor Carcieri are starting to use local police to root out undocumented residents.

The laws are grounded in a 1996 immigration reform act that lets federal officers train local police to help catch undocumented immigrants.

At first glance, orders like Carcieri's look ideal. The federal government gets help dealing with the 12 million people who are in the country illegally; local police get free training and more authority; and tax-paying citizens dispose of the unauthorized residents straining their budgets. But it's hardly that simple.

To begin, such laws make communities less safe by discouraging immigrants from cooperating with local police. Police depend on residents to report crimes and identify criminals. But when immigrants fear that talking to officers may lead to their deportation, they remain quiet.

Proponents of reforms like Rhode Island's argue that immigrants bring more crime to neighborhoods. They are wrong. Evidence overwhelmingly shows that immigrants – documented or not – commit less crime than US natives. The erosion of public trust is not just bad for immigrants; it is bad for whole neighborhoods.

Politicians like Carcieri tend to cast such reforms as cost-saving measures, which will relieve the strains placed on public services by undocumented immigrants. "We barely have enough resources to take care of the neediest amongst us who are here legally," Carcieri said in defense of the order.

But tasking local police with enforcing federal immigration law doesn't come close to saving costs. Finding, arresting, and processing undocumented immigrants is expensive. Prince William County, which passed a similar order last year, estimates having to spend $26 million to enforce the law over the next five years, and its population is only one-third the size of Rhode Island's.

Financial cost aside, enforcing immigration law demands a considerable time commitment on the part of local law enforcement. For departments already stretched by dwindling resources, pursuing undocumented immigrants detracts from responsibilities like cracking down on violent crime.

What's more important: going after criminals who murder, assault, and rob US citizens; or tracking down people whose most serious offense is crossing the border illegally?

Kids lose out, too. There are approximately 5 million US children with at least one undocumented parent. When reforms like Rhode Island's are implemented, undocumented parents tend to pull their kids out of programs like free healthcare and school lunches, for fear of attracting attention.

Thankfully not all cities and states are taking such a hard-line approach. At the beginning of 2006, the mayor of New Haven, Conn., signed an order forbidding municipal police from enforcing federal immigration law or inquiring about any resident's citizenship.

The impact of the reform was immediate. In the first year that the policy was implemented, major crime fell by 18 percent in New Haven's immigrant neighborhood. In the world of police statistics, that kind of single-year drop is almost unheard of. The district commander attributes the drop to immigrants' willingness to work with police. "You do a lot of problem solving by having that trust with the community," he said.

Rhode Island's police do not seem worried about losing that trust though. Last week, the police chiefs association voted overwhelmingly to endorse Carcieri's reform. The president said the decision came after a "healthy discussion."

The law-enforcement approaches of Rhode Island and New Haven could not be more different. Where one eradicates immigrants, the other integrates them. Where one enforces immigration law, the other shuns it. But for all their differences, the two orders are rooted in the same problem. As Carcieri put it, "The federal government has not effectively addressed the complex issue of illegal immigration."

As the number of immigrants in the US continues to grow, the need for comprehensive immigration reform is more urgent than ever. But until the federal government steps up to address the problem, states and cities will be forced to come up with their own solutions. When they do, they should follow the smarter, more practical leadership of cities like New Haven, and not the dangerous, costly reforms of Rhode Island. That's the way to make America's neighborhoods safer. And that's the kind of leadership Americans deserve.  

Nik Steinberg is a master's student in public policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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