President Bush claims he’s serious about immigration enforcement. Here’s one way he could show it. The Orange County, Ca., sheriff has asked the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to train and deputize his detectives in immigration law and to authorize them to enforce it. That way, when a sheriff’s detective comes across an illegal-alien gang suspect, he can get him off the street immediately on an immigration charge. ICE has sat on Sheriff Michael Corona’s request (which conforms to a 1996 federal law) for ten months. If President Bush wants to demonstrate that he is willing to protect the country against illegal-alien criminals, he should order ICE to approve Orange County’s request without further delay.
The Orange County illegal-felon initiative is potentially revolutionary. Congress acknowledged the need to bring local police officers into immigration enforcement ten years ago, when it passed section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. That section addresses the mismatch between the size of the illegal-alien population — currently estimated at around 12 million — and the number of federal immigration officers assigned to apprehending those illegals — about 2000 agents. As the Heritage Foundation’s James Jay Carafano observes, the Department of Homeland Security cannot even deport all the criminal aliens released from prisons, much less find them in the first place.
In the hope of rectifying that imbalance, Section 287(g) allows cops on the beat to be trained as immigration agents, so that they can investigate, arrest, and take custody of illegal aliens with the same authority as a federal agent. It wasn’t until after 9/11, however, that any local police agency requested training under 287(g). The stigma against immigration law enforcement was too great; no local force wanted to risk the wrath of illegal alien advocates.
The Florida state troopers were the first to break the taboo. Stung by the discovery that several of the 9/11 hijackers had used Florida as a planning base for the attack, and aware that four of the hijackers had been stopped for traffic violations in various states while out of immigration status, Florida worked out an agreement with the INS (the predecessor to ICE) to train as immigration agents the 35 state troopers who participate in federal terrorism task forces.
Since then, a handful of other law-enforcement agencies have signed immigration-enforcement agreements with ICE. Several dozen Alabama state troopers use their immigration expertise during routine traffic stops to spot fake identification documents and other signs of immigration violations and to make arrests if appropriate. Jail deputies in Arizona and in California’s Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties screen inmates for immigration status to make sure that illegal aliens are not released back into the local population after serving their time.
These are all valuable programs, but the Orange County Sheriff’s proposal takes immigration enforcement up another notch. It’s all very well to try to make sure that the feds take custody of illegal inmates after their incarceration, but by then, those illegals have eaten up local taxpayer revenues in jail costs, not to mention the police, prosecution, and free defense-counsel resources needed to put them there. Orange County, Ca., spends nearly $18 million a year incarcerating just those illegal aliens who already have immigration holds on them — over ten percent of its jail population; that number leaves out the many other illegal-alien criminals who have escaped ICE detection entirely.
In contrast to most of the existing local immigration agreements, the Orange County plan tries to nab illegal-alien criminals before they end up in jail. Unlike state highway troopers, sheriff’s detectives work in the most crime-prone, often immigrant-heavy, neighborhoods every day; they actively seek out criminals rather than waiting for a law-breaker to come to them. In these gang-saturated neighborhoods, illegal-alien criminals prey on law-abiding immigrants; their law-abiding victims are usually reluctant to provide evidence against them. The only tool that a law-enforcement officer may have for getting an illegal gang-banger off the street is his immigration status; trying to build a case for armed robbery, say, may be futile. Moreover, if an investigator has only enough evidence to detain someone briefly for questioning about a crime, but not yet probable cause to arrest him, a quick check of the immigration database may provide grounds to arrest him rather than let him get away.
The recent shooting of two toddlers by an illegal Mexican thug in L.A. clarifies the situation. Mauricio Alejandro Jimenez was a long-time member of the Tiny Boys gang in the Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles. He was well-known to the police, having been arrested at least seven times for gun and gang crimes in the past several years, according to the Los Angeles Times. Pursuant to the department’s misguided sanctuary law, which in effect forbids officers from inquiring into or reporting a suspect’s immigration status, the LAPD apparently never notified ICE of this illegal criminal. (The department has not yet responded to a query on the matter.) Only after he was incarcerated for a year in state prison on a weapons charge and parole violation was he deported to Mexico. (Note: Los Angeles taxpayers have been footing the bill to have parole agents follow around this illegal Mexican and make sure that he minds his manners.) That was a mere four months ago; it took Jimenez no time at all to skip across the border again and return to his old haunts. On July 15, Jimenez was hanging out in Boyle Heights when he erupted in a burst of gunfire, shooting a pair of one- and three-year-old brothers. Had the LAPD gang detectives had the power that Orange County seeks, if they had come across Jimenez on the streets over the last four months, they could have arrested him immediately for reentry following deportation, rather than waiting for him to shoot someone.
Despite the patent need for such additional law-enforcement authority, Sheriff Corona’s plan is narrowly circumscribed and has even been cut back from its original conception. Gang detectives would use their immigration authority only against illegal aliens suspected or already convicted of serious felonies, or who have reentered the country following deportation, or who are involved in gang activity. Illegal aliens who “only” engage in felonies punishable by under five years in jail would be treated like citizens and subjected only to the criminal law, not to immigration enforcement. “Law-abiding” illegal aliens would be equally outside the scope of the deputies’ authority. “We’d be running a shuttle service to the jail” if the county set the threshold on immigration inquiries too low, says sheriff spokesman Jon Fleischman. The generic illegal alien problem is “too prolific, we don’t have time to deal with it.”
Orange County’s original proposal would have given sheriffs deputies on routine patrol access to the ICE immigration-crime databases — not just detectives. ICE and immigrant advocates rejected this reasonable idea and also sharply reduced the number of detectives who would be given clearance to check immigration databases.
Notwithstanding its limited scope, the Orange County proposal has created a wave of fear in the advocacy community. An entire industry now advises local activists how to fight section 287(g) agreements (examples here, here, and here), and for good reason. Once local law-enforcement officers get access to immigration-crime databases and are given the authority to arrest for those crimes, the nationwide sanctuary zone may finally start to dissolve. Over 100 police agencies have contacted the Orange County sheriff about his submission; if ICE approves it, their own requests to use immigration law against criminals will pour into Washington in short order.
Since Sheriff Corona submitted his proposal last year, ICE has approved several far narrower 287(g) plans that were submitted after the Orange County package. The conclusion looks inescapable: A manpower shortage is not holding up the Orange County proposal, its potential to shake up the illegal alien status quo is. For that reason, its ultimate fate will speak volumes about President Bush’s commitment to the law.
– Heather Mac Donald is a contributing editor to City Journal, where her latest article argues the conservative case for immigration enforcement.