Police May Join Hunt for Illegal Migrants

Times Staff Writer

Alabama Trooper Gary Hetzel patrols the highways of this Deep South state like a hunter, scouting the traffic lanes for speeders and reckless drivers, drunks and outlaws on the run.

Now he can chase another kind of quarry: illegal immigrants.

Last month, the Alabama Department of Public Safety became the second police agency in the country authorized to enforce federal immigration laws in an experiment that is heartening to some and disturbing to others.

With more than 8 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, according to government figures, and 5,500 federal agents available for enforcement in interior areas beyond the border, advocates of cracking down on illegal migration see more than 600,000 state and local officers as a "force multiplier" that could finally and irrevocably turn the tide.

In Congress, a bill known as the CLEAR Act would transform what until recently has been a low-key experiment with local enforcement of immigration laws into a national crusade along the lines of the war on drugs. By setting up a system of financial penalties and incentives -- including seizure of illegal immigrants' property -- it aims to induce cities and states to take on immigration enforcement.

Immigrant advocates and civil rights groups warn that such a sweeping delegation of federal authority could lead to abuses against those who merely look or sound foreign.

Although many police agencies would welcome additional immigration expertise, local law enforcement is divided about signing up for a vast new mission. The California Police Chiefs Assn. opposes the CLEAR Act, which stands for Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal, concerned that officers would lose the trust of immigrant communities. The National Sheriffs Assn. has endorsed it.

Alabama launched its program Oct. 14, and is still feeling its way. Florida's state police had been the only other participant in the small-scale program run by the federal government for state and local police.

The Los Angeles County and Orange County sheriff's departments are among the agencies considering immigration enforcement training for some specialized officers, as are police in Arizona.

At the Los Angeles Police Department, spokeswoman Sandra Escalante said the department had no plans to become involved in immigration enforcement. Department policy for nearly 25 years has generally prevented officers from questioning people about their immigration status or from turning otherwise law-abiding immigrants over to federal authorities.

"We don't arrest people because of their status," Escalante said.

In Alabama, 21 troopers passed a five-week federal course in the intricacies of immigration law, returning to their regular duties on the roads and in driver's license offices with new skills.

Hetzel, 34, said he became interested in immigration after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He spent much of that day on the phone, trying to find his sister-in-law, who worked at the World Trade Center in Manhattan. She was fortunate to have gone to an appointment outside the office when the attacks occurred, but many of her co-workers were killed.

A year later, on Sept. 11, 2002, the National Guard deployed Hetzel to Afghanistan for more than six months.

"I just have this thing about people who come here to do us harm," he said. "I got this training on the off chance that I might stop one of them and find out they're up to no good."

The odds of collaring a terrorist in a traffic stop in Alabama seem remote, but routine immigration enforcement doesn't appeal to Hetzel.

If he were to stop an otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrant for speeding, he said, "I'd probably just write him his ticket and send him home."

Other policing duties come first, from responding to accidents to enforcing child-seat laws. "I cover five counties," Hetzel said. "I ain't got time."

The troopers' new mission has unnerved Latinos in a state that is experiencing double-digit growth in its immigrant work force. The Mexican Consulate in Atlanta, which covers four Southern states, has set up a phone line for people to report abuses.

"We have concerns that people will be pulled over for driving while Latino," said Isabel Rubio of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, a community group in Birmingham. "I really don't feel like it's the role of any federal law enforcement agency to give its job over to state and local police."

The legal authority of local police to enforce federal immigration laws has been debated.

A central issue is that many immigration violations are civil, not criminal, offenses. For example, overstaying a visa -- an infraction that accounts for 30% to 40% of illegal immigrants in the country -- is a civil matter. Since city police don't collect back taxes for the IRS, they shouldn't round up deportees either, critics say.

"For a very long time, the view of the Justice Department under the various administrations, and the majority view of the federal courts, was that state and local police ... do not have the authority to make arrests for civil immigration violations," said Michael Wishnie, a New York University law professor and immigrant advocate.

Congress opened a narrow exception in 1996, creating the program that Alabama and Florida have joined. It required a written agreement that local police get specialized training and accept supervision by the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement when carrying out immigration laws.

Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The hijackers all initially entered the country legally, and the success of their plot underscored a desire to improve the scrutiny and tracking of foreigners. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft declared in 2002 that state and local police had the authority to arrest criminal or civil immigration violators, provided they were wanted suspects whose names had been entered into the National Crime Information Center database.

"It is our hope and belief that this narrow authority ... will not undermine in any way the relationship between state and local police and immigrant communities," White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez wrote in a 2002 letter explaining the decision.

But in Congress, Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) wanted to set aside that "narrow authority" and enlist state and local police in the front lines of immigration enforcement. Norwood is the author of the CLEAR Act, which has quickly attracted 110 cosponsors, a quarter of the membership of the House.

The bill would make civil immigration infractions -- such as overstaying a visa -- criminal violations. States that fail to pass legislation authorizing police to enforce immigration laws could lose federal funding for jailing criminal immigrants. Additional money would be allocated to states that embrace the program. And local police departments could be rewarded with the proceeds of assets seized from illegal immigrants, including homes, bank accounts and vehicles.

"I can see the headlines: America is finally back to being a nation of laws," Norwood said. "America has finally decided that she needs to control who goes in and out of this country, particularly when we don't know who is coming to work and who is coming to kill."

Norwood said his top priority is to find and deport an estimated 400,000 "alien absconders" who have flouted orders to leave the country, and some 80,000 foreigners with criminal convictions. But the legislation would cast a much broader dragnet.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-North Hollywood), an opponent of the measure, said it "is essentially creating a national police to try to search out, find and deport some 8 million people, with all the human, economic and political consequences."

While the CLEAR Act may not have enough support to pass Congress as a stand-alone measure, conservatives could insist that any broader immigration reform bill encompass the principle of local enforcement.

An ambitious immigration enforcement mission for local police could create havoc in places like Southern California, where U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants are often members of the same families, some police experts said.

"The upheaval that could cause in a community, and the anger, is not something a lot of law enforcement agencies would look forward to," said Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police, the largest organization of law enforcement executives.

Senior officers of the Los Angeles County and Orange County sheriff's departments said their agencies are interested in immigration training but for limited purposes. Los Angeles Sheriff's Division Chief Charles M. Jackson, who oversees the county jails, said he wants to train officers to identify prisoners who are illegal immigrants so that the inmates can be deported after they serve their time. Orange County is interested in immigration enforcement skills for its homeland security unit.

"We wouldn't be interested in pulling people over and trying to figure out what their status is," said George Jaramillo, assistant sheriff for operations in Orange County.

In the past, immigration enforcement by local police has led to roundups that snared citizens as well as migrants, spawning lawsuits that took years to resolve. The track record of the current experiment is still open.

Florida's program, with 35 officers, has been in place for a year and has led to 165 arrests, with no community complaints. The Florida agents were assigned to homeland security task forces and targeted document rings that were supplying false identification to foreigners.

Alabama has had only a handful of cases, including a traffic stop of a speeding van transporting 13 illegal immigrants. They were turned over for deportation.

Col. W.M. "Mike" Coppage, who heads Alabama's state police, has been making the rounds of Latino community groups to explain the program.

"We don't envision ourselves being involved in task forces to go out and raid chicken plants and Wal-Marts," Coppage said.

Instead, ranking officers believe an understanding of immigration laws can help troopers carry out their duties under Alabama law.

"We always train troopers to look beyond the traffic stop for further evidence of a criminal act," said Maj. Patrick Manning, who heads the highway division. "It really does not matter whether a person looks Hispanic, or speaks Spanish or English. Whether it's a Bubba with a still in the woods who's got something to hide or an undocumented alien. The question is, is there some criminal act?"

Before the immigration training, troopers said they were unsure what to do when they stopped someone they suspected of being an undocumented immigrant. Now they believe they have more options.

Trooper Susanna Capps, a seven-year veteran, is a specialist in document fraud with the driver's license bureau. Last year, her division arrested 4,239 people trying to use false identification to get an Alabama license, the overwhelming majority of whom were U.S. citizens. Alabama does not grant driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.

"It's really not going to be a whole lot different than dealing with any other document that might not be good, like a Social Security card," Capps said.

"A lot of people are under the misconception that we're just going to drop everything and go after the little guys in the peach orchard. Everyone I deal with is going to come to me first."

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Alonso-Zaldivar, who is based in Washington, reported this story while on assignment in Alabama.

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