‘Sanctuary’ Laws Stand in Justice’s Way

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Heather Mac Donald is the author of "Are Cops Racist?" (Ivan R. Dee, 2003) and a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, from whose Winter 2004 issue this is adapted.

Some of the most dangerous thugs preying on immigrant communities in Los Angeles are in this country illegally. Yet the Los Angeles Police Department cannot use the most obvious tool to apprehend them: their immigration status.

Dozens of gang members from Mara Salvatrucha, a ruthless Salvadoran prison gang, for example, have sneaked back into town after having been deported for such crimes as murder, assault with a deadly weapon and drug trafficking. Police officers know who they are and know that their mere presence in the country after deportation is a felony. Yet if an LAPD officer arrests an illegal gangbanger for felonious reentry, it is the officer who will be treated as a criminal for violating an LAPD rule.

That rule, Special Order 40, prohibits officers from questioning or apprehending someone only for an immigration violation or from notifying the immigration service (now known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement) about an illegal alien. Only if the person has been booked for a nonimmigration felony or multiple misdemeanors may officers even inquire about his immigration status.


Such “sanctuary” rules, replicated in cities with a high number of immigrants, are a testament to the political power of immigrant lobbies. “We can’t even talk about” illegal alien crime, a frustrated LAPD captain said. “People are afraid of a backlash from Hispanics.”

Police commanders may not want to discuss the illegal-alien crisis, but its magnitude for law enforcement is startling: 95% of all outstanding warrants for homicide in Los Angeles (which total more than 1,200) are for illegal aliens, according to officers. Up to two-thirds of all fugitive felony warrants (which total 17,000) are for illegal aliens. The leadership of the Columbia Li’l Cycos gang, which has used murder and racketeering to control the drug market around MacArthur Park, was about 60% illegal aliens in 2002, says a former assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted them in 2002.

Good luck finding any reference to such facts in “official” crime analysis. The LAPD and the Los Angeles city attorney recently obtained a preliminary injunction against drug trafficking in Hollywood. The injunction targets the 18th Street gang and, as the press release puts it, “non-gang members” who sell drugs in Hollywood on behalf of the gang.

Those nongang members are virtually all illegal Mexicans, smuggled in by the gang. Cops and prosecutors say that they know the immigration status of these nongang “Hollywood dealers,” as the city attorney calls them, but the gang injunction is silent on that aspect. If an officer were to arrest a dealer for his immigration status, or even notify immigration authorities, he would face discipline for violation of Special Order 40.

Likewise, although LAPD officers recognize previously deported gang members all the time, they can’t touch a deported felon unless he has given them some other reason to stop him. Even then, an officer can arrest him only for the offense not related to immigration. Yet a deported gangbanger who reenters the country is already committing a federal felony -- punishable by up to 20 years.

The city’s ban on enforcing immigration crimes puts the community at risk by stripping the police of what may be their only immediate tool to remove a criminal from circulation. Trying to build a case for homicide, say, against an illegal alien gang member is often futile because witnesses fear retaliation. Enforcing an immigration crime would allow the cops to lock up the murderer right now, without putting a witness at risk.


The department’s top brass brush off such concerns. No big deal if you see deported gangbangers back on the streets, they say. Just put them under surveillance for “real” crimes and arrest them for those. But surveillance is manpower-intensive. Where there is an immediate ground for arresting a violent felon, it is absurd to demand that the understaffed LAPD ignore it.

The stated reason for sanctuary policies is to encourage crime victims and witnesses who are illegal aliens to cooperate with the police without fear of deportation. This theory has never been tested. In any case, the official rationale could be honored by limiting police use of immigration laws to some subset of violators: say, deported felons whose immigration status police know.

The biggest myth about sanctuary laws is that they are immigrant-friendly. To the contrary: They leave law-abiding immigrants vulnerable to violence. Nor will it do to say that immigration enforcement is solely a federal responsibility. When it comes to fighting terrorism, the LAPD understands that it cannot rely on the feds alone to protect Los Angeles. Similarly, the department should not wait for a few of the 2,000-odd immigration agents, stretched to the breaking point nationwide, to show up and apprehend felons who are terrorizing neighborhoods.