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The first casualty in the war on undocumented immigrants — the truth

The first casualty in the war on undocumented immigrants — the truth
Chief Charlie Beck of the Los Angeles Police Department, shown here in October, told the Los Angeles Times on Monday that President-elect Trump's vows to deport millions after taking office will not affect the LAPD's longstanding policy of staying out of immigration issues. (Nick Ut / Associated Press)

The first casualty in the war on the undocumented, as in any war, is the truth. In this case, President-elect Donald Trump appears to have bought into a series of falsehoods and sweeping generalizations about the roles that cities and municipal law enforcement play in supposedly shielding residents from federal immigration enforcement. Los Angeles is fortunate to have, in Charlie Beck, a police chief who distinguishes between fact and fiction and recognizes the role his officers play in protecting public safety.

As Trump aides hammered out their plans to pressure local police and jail officials to assist in finding and deporting residents who crossed the border illegally or otherwise flouted immigration laws, Beck on Monday said the LAPD would not change its current practices. It would not begin questioning people on their immigration status or turning over low-level crime suspects who are undocumented to federal authorities.

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The LAPD is not a branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and police do not allow themselves to be deputized as immigration agents. Nor should they.

Since the 1970s, the LAPD has wisely recognized that it can best protect public safety by cultivating good relationships with the communities it serves and giving all residents the assurance that they can speak to police without fear of being deported. Besides, police here have plenty of their own work to do without adding immigration enforcement.

This policy outrages some critics who falsely believe that crossing the border and residing in the United States without authorization are crimes. They are not. Violators may have no legal right to be here and are subject to deportation — but under U.S. law their actions are not crimes and they are not criminals.

Beck's sound approach, which has been the policy of every L.A. police chief since Daryl F. Gates, is sometimes used to brand Los Angeles a "sanctuary city." It is not — at least, not if that term is to have any actual meaning. L.A. does not actively shield anyone from deportation nor does it impede efforts by federal officials to do their work. Besides, most of the interaction with ICE necessarily is not with the city but the county — which grants federal agents full access to its jails and inmate databases and follows protocols for transferring inmates to federal custody.

But some immigration hawks, including Trump, have indulged in a kind of definition creep under which they brand any municipality a "sanctuary city" if it fails to do the federal government's immigration work for it. That would be merely dishonest were it not for the possibility that the Trump administration might punish "sanctuary" cities by withholding federal police funding for supposedly flouting immigration law. Having campaigned on anti-immigration "facts" that are mainstays of conservative blogs and talk radio, Trump now has a lot to learn before turning his pronouncements into policies that enhance, rather than undermine, public safety.

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