Immigration Enforcement: The Next Big Policing Controversy?
In recent years, several states and cities have passed laws and restrictive ordinances to control undocumented immigration. More recently, the federal government has become more aggressive in immigration enforcement and the detention of undocumented people. Regardless of one’s position on immigration enforcement, local police often are placed in the middle when making decisions about enforcement practices. For example, when Arizona passed its restrictive law requiring police officers to check suspects’ legal immigrant status, many agencies opposed the measure on the grounds that it would prevent people from cooperating with police.
Most cities have taken two different routes to immigration-enforcement policy. Some have cooperated with the federal government aggressively, assisting with the identification and eventual deportation of immigrants, while other cities, such as San Francisco, have adopted “sanctuary practices,” preventing police from questioning immigrants about their residency status unless they were charged with a serious crime. Additionally, a number of cities, while initially taking one route, have changed direction. This has resulted in inconsistent practices by police departments across the country and even within individual states. Regardless of what position a local law enforcement agency takes on immigration enforcement, it is certain to alienate some segment of the community, resulting in public-relation problems.
A significant part of the problem law enforcement experience over immigration enforcement begins with misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of undocumented people. Contrary to popular belief, women make up a substantial share, more than 40 percent of all adult undocumented immigrants — about 3.2 million people. About 1.6 million children under the age of 18 are undocumented immigrants and about 3 million children with undocumented parents are United States citizens. Virtually all undocumented men work, many in the gray economy. By their very status, undocumented immigrants are a vulnerable population and can become easy prey to criminal victimization because fear of deportation often makes them reluctant to report crimes committed against them.
Although some politicians claim undocumented immigrants are involved in a substantial amount of serious crime, research shows otherwise. For example, studies in San Diego and El Paso show undocumented immigrants account for a small percentage of all serious crime. Estimates indicate that Mexican men have an incarceration rate of less than 1 percent, which is much lower than the 5.9 percent rate of U.S. born males of Mexican descent. Generally, native-born men have an incarceration rate 10 times higher than that of foreign-born men.
Large urban areas with significant numbers of undocumented people have lower homicide rates when compared to cities without substantial undocumented populations. Some research even shows the presence of significant numbers of undocumented people in a community actually suppresses crime rates.
Regardless of lack of an immigrant-crime nexus and the clear vulnerability of undocumented people, stepped-up federal-immigration-enforcement action has a negative impact on both local law enforcement and immigrant populations. Media coverage of round-ups, raids, sweeps and deportations by federal law enforcement, whether or not assisted by local law enforcement, drives a wedge between local police and immigrant communities. A roundtable of police executives found these tactics are foremost in immigrants’ minds when they encounter local law enforcement.
Media coverage of immigration enforcement is likely to expand in coming years. It therefore seems prudent for local law enforcement executives to begin thinking of ways in which they can delineate their practices from that of federal authorities and to better communicate with the media, immigrant communities and the general public about their position and role in immigration enforcement.