In the blistering deserts along the U.S.-Mexico border, clusters of weary undocumented travelers climb through destroyed wire fence atop sand dunes.
The sight is so common that passersby – even on the U.S. side – rarely notice anymore.
But some big-city police departments have taken a similar “blind-eye” approach to immigration law enforcement – literally forcing officers to look the other way as well.
Local law enforcement agencies, such as the Los Angeles Police Department and the Houston Police Department, prohibit officers from inquiring about citizenship status and reject policies and plans that would expand their role in federal immigration law enforcement.
A common belief among proponents of the sanctuary policies implemented by some big cities is that illegal immigration, if a concern at all, is solely a federal issue.
Back in 1979, the LAPD adopted a mandate by the L.A. City Council to prevent police from inquiring about the immigration status of arrestees. The internal policy, “Special Order 40,” is clear, concise and to the point. It states: “Officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person. Officers shall not arrest nor book persons for violation of title 8, section 1325 of the United States Immigration code (Illegal Entry).”
LAPD Assistant Chief George Gascon said in a statement faxed to WND that Special Order 40 “prohibits our officers from inquiring into a person’s immigration status, or working with federal authorities to enforce immigration matters when no other crime is present.”
“Our officers understand that they should arrest and report to federal authorities individuals suspected of having been previously convicted of serious offenses, who were deported and are now back preying on our communities,” Gascon said.
Judicial Watch, a public-interest group sworn to fight government corruption, is in litigation opposing LAPD’s use of taxpayer funds to enforce and maintain Special Order 40, which the organization claims “violates both federal immigration laws and California law and puts American citizens at risk.”
According to Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton: “Special Order 40 is unlawful and dangerous. It prevents police officers from communicating freely with federal immigration officials and puts American citizens at risk from criminal illegal aliens.”
Additionally, Judicial Watch has filed a “Texas Public Information Act Request” with the Houston Police Department. The department maintains a similar policy called HPD General Order 500-5. The policy reportedly prevents Houston police officers from asking about an individual’s citizenship status or detaining illegal aliens.
Houston and Los Angeles officials expressed concerns that illegal immigrants will not be able to distinguish state and local police from deportation agents, possibly resulting in failure to report crimes and assist in investigations. Risk of deportation could silence them from reporting abuses, and the departments say they fear it will be more difficult for police to do their jobs.
Such policies are becoming more widespread in urban areas. The Major Cities Chiefs Immigration Committee consists of various large police departments including Houston, New York, Tucson, Miami-Dade and Los Angeles. The organization prepared a packet of recommendations intended for enforcement of immigration policies by local police departments. It states: “Without assurances that contact with the police would not result in purely civil immigration enforcement action, the hard won trust, communication and cooperation from the immigrant community would disappear.”
The committee adds, “Local police agencies must meet their existing policing and homeland security duties and can not even begin to consider taking on the added burden of immigration enforcement until federal assistance and funding are in place to support such enforcement.”
But the sanctuary policies that spurred such decisions predate homeland security concerns by decades. They date back, in fact, to the mid-1970s when President Jimmy Carter’s attorney general, Griffin Bell, told local police departments they were not authorized to ask for identification on the pretext of enforcing federal immigration law.
Houston adopted its policy in 1992. But now it is being challenged by a group called “Protect Our Citizens.” The group expects to collect 20,000 signatures for a November ballot initiative to amend the city charter to allow police to enforce immigration laws.
Feds offer enforcement training
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency offers local law enforcement officers extensive training in immigration and law procedures. The training shows how to determine whether an individual is an illegal alien and can be removed from the U.S. The five-week program costs only $520 per officer.
As of last month, 136 officers had received the training in four states – Alabama, Arizona, California and Florida. The trainees have made 820 immigration-related arrests since the program started in 2002. Several of the arrests relate to fraudulent documents, though others involve rape, drug possession, firearm possession, driving under the influence and burglary.
But due to the current city immigration law enforcement policies, officials of the Los Angeles Police Department and Houston Police Department told WND they have no intent to participate in the program.
Meanwhile, in smaller cities and towns across America, local officials are moving in what appears to be the opposite direction – passing laws banning the hiring of illegal aliens and renting to them.
On Wednesday, the Riverside, N.J., Township Council voted 5-0 to ban hiring or renting to illegal immigrants – joining a growing list of other local jurisdictions determined to stop the influx of illegals into their communities.
“We looked at what we could do to ensure the public safety and quality of life for our residents,” Mayor Charles Hilton said before the vote.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Riverside’s population was steady at 8,000 for the last 25 years. But Hilton said that number didn’t include somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 undocumented residents. Hilton criticized the situation as “an environment of exploitation” of illegal immigrants.
Under the new law, employers and landlords face a fine of $1,000 for each violation.
Small towns taking action
Riverside’s action came amid a growing movement of small towns across the country that have decided to tackle what immigration advocates say has long been federal purview. Town leaders, like those in Hazleton, Pa., where a similar ordinance was adopted earlier this month, say the federal government is taking too long to remedy the problem.
The subject came up at an Elgin, Ill., city council meeting Wednesday night, too. Police Chief Lisa Womack defended her department’s efforts to deal with illegal immigration, saying police do everything they can to deport illegals but claimed their efforts are limited by the priorities of federal authorities. The chief’s presentation came in response to repeated appearances at council meetings by former school board member Doug Heaton and others who have said police don’t do enough to deport illegals.
Womack said police alert U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to all serious misdemeanor and felony cases involving foreign-born suspects. In addition, all foreign-born non-citizens 18 and older who are known gang members are subject to residency verification and deportation, regardless of whether they have committed a crime, she said.
Police do not inform the agency about foreign-born individuals arrested for traffic violations because ICE has said it will not take any action “because of their priorities, their resources and their staffing levels,” Womack said. Police did inform federal authorities about drunken driving cases involving potential illegals until about five years ago, when they were told agents no longer would be pursuing such cases, she said.
However, routine traffic violations and stops sometimes help to identify serious criminals, as Athens, Pa., police found out recently. A man apprehended two weeks ago and charged with being in the country illegally turned out to be a convicted rapist from Alabama. The man, who goes by a number of aliases, including Gasper Almilcar Guzman, has since been deported.
Guzman was picked up by the Athens Township Police with 25 other men during a routine traffic stop. The failure of the men to produce paperwork revealed they were living in the U.S. illegally. Local police turned them over to ICE. According to the federal agency, Guzman appeared before a federal court judge in Scranton Wednesday morning where he pleaded not guilty to his re-entry charge. ICE found the man was convicted in December 2005 for second-degree rape. His victim was a 14-year-old girl.
Officials could not explain why, or how, Guzman avoided a prison sentence for his rape conviction.
Chelsea Schilling is a WND intern based in Texas and currently in Washington.