Trump’s bid to federalize cops faces roadblock: cops

Not only do local police departments not have the budget or manpower to hunt for undocumented immigrants, police say prioritizing immigration could in some cases make it more difficult to keep their communities safe.

Stephen Lam/Reuters
Thomas Homan, acting director of enforcement for ICE, holds a town hall meeting in Sacramento, Calif., March 28, 2017.

Sheriff Scott Berry is the highest elected law-enforcement official in Georgia’s Oconee County, where President Trump received 67 percent of the votes.

And for the most part, Sheriff Berry is on board with Mr. Trump's push to deport some 3 million undocumented immigrants. Just last week, he says, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents came to pick up someone from his Watkinsville, Ga., jail.

But if Oconee County offers the kind of support from local law enforcement to an administration that has vowed to end an “anti-police atmosphere” in the United States, it also shows the limits of the White House’s efforts to ask police to serve as de facto immigration agents. That's because, like many of his colleagues, Berry argues that turning his department into a deportation force would run counter to his constitutional oath.

“I don’t care which federal agency it is, they can have one of my inmates as long as they come and pick them up in time,” says Berry. But “when we’re dealing with people [in the community], where you came from is of no interest to us. The federal government does what they do – and we do what we do.”

That blunt assessment from a sheriff in a rural Georgia county poses a stark challenge for a president who vowed on the campaign trail to “federalize the police” to do immigration work. 

Law enforcement and border security are different jobs, both police and law enforcement experts say. Not only do departments not have the budget or manpower, it could in some cases make their primary job of keeping their communities safe more difficult.

One reason local police departments may resist informing ICE about someone in custody: They don't want victims deprived of their day in court. "In other words," writes Radley Balko, author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop," in The Washington Post, “local officials have determined that in some instances, trying serious crimes in court is more important to the local community than deporting an accused undocumented immigrant. That’s precisely the sort of decision a true federalist would let states and municipalities decide on their own. Instead, Trump wants a one-size-fits-all immigration policy — his policy — for every police agency in the United States.”

The administration’s focus so far has been on publicizing the release of undocumented immigrants from jails in sanctuary counties such as Los Angeles and Travis County, Texas. But the Trump administration’s vow to enjoin local cops to root out undocumented people has also begun to push American cops like Berry to confront the complex intersection of policing, federalism, and funding.

A list of counties in 24 states who refused to cooperate with ICE earlier this year “is obviously the first step [of attempting to federalize local police] … though it’s not the most extreme step,” says Rick Su, a political scientist and immigration law expert at the University at Buffalo in New York. “Even if the administration is serious about recruiting more cooperation with local law enforcement, they would probably do better by negotiating and having local law enforcement at the table than trying to shame and sort of hammer them into cooperation.”

Law-and-order president

Mr. Trump ran as a law-and-order candidate. His efforts to boost police – including personally calling the families of some fallen officers – have won him plaudits from ranks reeling from bad publicity over police shootings of unarmed minorities and pressure from the Obama administration. At a meeting with national police union officials Tuesday, Fraternal Order of Police president Dean Angelo said the president “is on our wavelength.” At the meeting, Trump assured officials that his effort to coerce cooperation with sanctuary jurisdictions would not hurt police departments.

But Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed to step up pressure on hundreds of such sanctuary jurisdictions across the US, reaffirming Trump’s threat that such jurisdictions could stand to lose millions in federal funding if they don't cooperate. A January executive order signed by Trump also reminded US police that it’s illegal to refuse to tell federal agents about immigrants in custody. The White House says its plan is “to make agreements [with local law enforcement] to perform the functions of immigration officers in relation to investigation, apprehension or detention of aliens ….”

That stand is ratcheting up tensions between Trump and top officials in US cities like Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and Los Angeles. So-called sanctuary policies vary by jurisdiction, but some forbid police from inquiring into someone's immigration status while others mandate that ICE agents have a warrant before local law enforcement can assist them.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu in New Orleans has argued the Trump administration is trying to build a “deportation army." LAPD Chief Charles Beck said last Tuesday that a 25 percent drop in reports of rape in his city may be tied to a new fear of contacting authorities. For its part, the Trump administration points to the rape of a college student in Maryland, allegedly by an undocumented immigrant, as why the harder line on deportation is necessary.

But advocates for Trump’s policy shift argue that sanctuary designations are less about public safety and more about political opposition by Democrats to immigration enforcement. They point to a recent Harvard University study that showed 80 percent of Americans oppose sanctuary cities, at least when the issue is tied to crime.

“On a day-to-day basis, ICE is not asking local law enforcement to do their job for them – all they’re asking for is cooperation,” says Jessica Vaughan, whose organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, pushes for tougher immigration law enforcement. At the same time, she adds, “I don’t think it is OK for states and local law enforcement to second-guess ICE on who is a threat to the public and on who should be deported – and that’s where it becomes contentious.”

Some police jurisdictions – and officers – agree with Trump’s fight against “sanctuary cities.” In the wake of the executive order, Miami-Dade announced it would end its sanctuary policy.

The view from Norfolk, Va.

For cops like Mike McKenna, however, the pushback is less about second-guessing Trump and more about the role of hard-earned experience on the streets of the average American town.

Mr. McKenna spent a career patrolling the streets of Norfolk, Va., a populous tidewater burg where police have broken up human trafficking rings involving Russian women and where a large agriculture sector means there is a large undocumented population of primarily Hispanics.

“I know what Trump is trying to do, but cops don’t want to get involved in it – and that’s true even in California and Texas,” he says. “They’re too busy and [immigration enforcement] is too time-consuming.”

For his part, McKenna says his personal experiences jibe with studies that show undocumented immigrants committing fewer violent crimes than native-born Americans.

“As far as our real crime here in Norfolk, citizens are involved far more often than illegal aliens,” says McKenna. “In fact, I was a police officer for 35 years and I don’t think I arrested one illegal alien for any kind of serious felony.”

McKenna says that whether (or which) undocumented immigrants are threats to community safety may be more nuanced at the ground level – where police operate – than the current government policies would indicate.

“I know a guy who came here over 20 years ago illegally, he’s been here 20 years, and now they’re going to ship him back – he’s in hiding now,” he says. “And I know a lady from Jamaica who retired from the federal government after 30 years of service whom the government now wants to deport.”

Supreme Court rulings that bar the federal government from “commandeering” local police officers are partly tied to the idea that police should be attuned to local public safety – not the agenda of elected executives in Washington. If that separation is breached, legal experts note, what would stop a future Democratic president from demanding that local police in conservative states enforce new federal gun control laws?

In that way, the extent to which Republicans – who historically have defended states’ rights – are willing to infringe on federalist principles will likely be a significant legal and political test. That's especially true given that some Republicans criticized the Obama administration for trying to “federalize” police departments by using federal consent decrees to push reforms.

The constitutional question

Using coercion or more direct orders to enlist police to enforce immigration law may not survive constitutional scrutiny, legal experts say. “Forcing [local police departments] to detain people would be commandeering … which violates the 10th Amendment," says Ilya Somin, author of “Democracy and Political Ignorance.” The 10th Amendment stipulates that powers not expressly delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states, or the people.

In Oconee County, where the sheriff’s Facebook page often offers a humorous take on small town policing, the prospect of infringing on states’ rights in order to solve a federal problem is problematic.

“Yes, they have to do something about illegal immigration. Somebody has to go and find the people that have overstayed visas, the people that don’t belong here,” says Sheriff Berry. “But it’s not us.”

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