Let Uncle Sam's Cops Do It

Most police agencies in Southern California long ago dropped the idea of doing the job of federal immigration authorities. If victims won't report crimes because they're afraid of being deported, how can investigators find out about crimes, much less solve them?

The Orange County Sheriff's Department would be stepping back a quarter of a century if it carried through on a plan to gain the powers to enforce immigration laws, despite its declared intent to use those powers only to go after criminals, not to sweep up illegal residents. The department already can go after criminals, regardless of their legal status.

The sheriff's office would be among the first three agencies nationwide to enforce immigration law under a program piloted by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach). The other two agencies are in Arizona and Florida. Sheriff's officials foresee using this in cases involving suspected terrorists or drug traffickers. Once suspects were arrested for probable cause, federal rules would allow them to be detained longer without charges if they were illegal immigrants.

That's exactly the kind of problematic scenario that would make immigrants fearful of talking to authorities. Local agencies already can and do call in federal authorities when immigration issues are involved in crime. Sheriff's officials say it can be hard to make their case to immigration agents within the time allotted. Better for authorities to iron out those interagency problems than to have local cops doing federal work.

Another problem with Cox's legislation is that it requires local agencies to spend their own money to train officers and provide staff for these efforts. Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo says that would be a deal-breaker for his office, which doesn't have the money. Cox is seeking a federal grant. But it makes little sense for the feds to foot the bill. The money would be better spent training more federal immigration agents to help local agencies when they need it -- and providing better immigration control on the border.

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