Citizenship checks strain trust in police

Times Staff Writer

Emelina Ramirez called police to tell them her roommates were attacking her, punching and kicking her in the stomach. When the police arrived, they handcuffed her, took her to jail and ran her fingerprints through a federal database. She is now in an Alabama cell awaiting deportation.

In the last month, Ramirez’s story has spread beyond the Latino community in Carrollton, the small rural town west of Atlanta where she lived, and across Georgia, which has just enacted one of the nation’s toughest laws against illegal immigration. It is a story that, for many undocumented immigrants, has one moral: Do not trust the police.

“People are living in fear,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Assn. of Latino Elected Officials, which is providing Latino residents information on the new law. That is difficult, he said, because of the vast differences in how local enforcement officials are interpreting the law.

The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act, which took effect July 1, requires law enforcement officers to investigate the citizenship status of anyone charged with a felony or driving under the influence. It also directs the state Public Safety Department to select and train Georgia state patrol officers to enforce federal immigration law while carrying out regular duties.


Across the state, however, Latino activists say that local officials are increasingly running background checks on Latinos who commit misdemeanors, such as minor traffic violations, or even those who go to the police to report thefts or fraud.

At the same time, criminals are targeting undocumented immigrants, aware that they tend to have large amounts of cash and are wary of reporting crimes.

“It’s the Wild West out here,” said Rich Pellegrino, director of the Cobb Cherokee Immigrant Alliance, which has been working with Cobb County’s crime prevention police unit to persuade undocumented immigrants to report crimes and serve as witnesses after a string of home invasions had targeted Latinos living in trailer parks.

This month, Pellegrino said, patrol officers checked the immigration status of a woman driving with a suspended tag, or license plate. She is now awaiting deportation.

“We spent months building up trust,” he said, “and now we’ve got to start all over again.”

For state Sen. Chip Rogers, a Republican who sponsored the security and immigration compliance act, there is no problem with local law enforcement’s interpretation of state immigration laws.

The Ramirez case, Rogers said, did not apply to the law he sponsored, because she had not been charged with a felony or DUI.

But if Ramirez were here illegally, he said, it was the “duty and responsibility” of the local police to report her to federal officials.


“All my law does,” he said, “is require local officials to enforce federal immigration law.”

Yet some legal experts highlight the complexity of such federal immigration laws and question whether local police officers and sheriffs’ deputies can enforce them without racial profiling and discrimination.

“The fear is that if you put it in the discretion of local law enforcement, you will have situations where they go outside of the law,” said Cristina Rodriguez, associate professor of law at New York University.

Whether local law enforcement officers act constitutionally, experts say, illegal immigrants’ trust in law enforcement diminishes when officers enforce federal immigration statutes, which also reduces their ability to fight local crime.


“If you have victims of crime no longer getting help from state officials, perhaps lawmakers need to change the law or officers need to exercise more discretion,” said Victor Romero, a law professor at Pennsylvania State University. “They need to understand what is their focus: Do they want to be mini federal immigration officers, or do they want to make sure their communities are safe?”

Cases such as Ramirez’s, Latino activists say, have a detrimental effect on police departments’ crime prevention initiatives and efforts to build relationships within Latino communities.

Ramirez, 30, was three months’ pregnant in June when, she says, her roommates attacked her. The Carrollton police officer who arrested her did not speak Spanish. He charged her with simple battery and took her to jail.

When jail officials ran her fingerprints through their database, they discovered that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement wanted her because she had missed a deportation hearing in Texas.


“The bottom line is: She was in the U.S. illegally,” said Lt. James Perry, the investigating officer in the case. “She was involved in an incident where the system caught up with her. That was that.”

Carrollton police do not target illegal immigrants, Perry said. In the last year, the department has worked with undocumented immigrants who were witnesses or victims of a July 2006 home invasion that resulted in murder at a trailer park. Since then, the Police Department has set up a Spanish-language tip line.

Still, the police report from the Ramirez case raises questions about whether officers do, in fact, target Latinos.

After Ramirez was arrested and her 8-year-old daughter went to the station to give her account of the incident, Perry said, he went back to the house to interview the roommates about the allegations.


Before asking questions, however, Perry asked the inhabitants for identification and observed “both body language and verbal language that led me to believe they might be illegal.” According to the police report, “we then told everyone they would have to go to the jail to be fingerprinted.”

For Gyla Gonzalez, executive director of Latinos United of Carroll County, who has worked with local police to build trust with Latinos, the shock and disappointment that spread through the community after Ramirez’s arrest unraveled much of her work.

“I tell people here they can trust the Police Department,” Gonzalez said. “I thought I was building a bridge with cement and real strong foundations. But now I feel as if it’s just a rickety bridge dangling in the air.”