Chiefs say immigration enforcement saps resources

Chiefs: Migrant law not our duty

Local-level enforcement saps resources, they say

Michael Kiefer and Allison Denny
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 9, 2007 12:00 AM

Valley police chiefs spoke out Monday against a groundswell to make local police departments enforce immigration law.

They cited limited resources and a mind-set that puts serious crime ahead of routine immigration enforcement.
"Our officers are committed to arresting bad guys off the street," Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris said.
Harris and other chiefs do not want their officers to routinely check immigration status of people they encounter, unless those people are suspected of committing a crime other than being in the country illegally.

The contentious debate over immigration and crime has increased since the shooting death of Phoenix police Officer Nick Erfle last month by an illegal immigrant. And law-enforcement officers are not unanimous in their approach to one of the state's most-divisive issues.

Monday was a day of dueling news conferences.

On the same day that police chiefs took their stance against extra immigration duties, the labor union that represents Phoenix police officers asked for easier access to federal immigration agents. "We're not asking to become immigration officers," said Mark Spencer president of the 2,200-member Phoenix Law Enforcement Association. But, he said, it should be easier for police to handle immigration matters.

Maricopa County's most-vocal opponents of illegal immigration, County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio, said at their own news conference that they would support citizens initiatives to force Valley police to enforce immigration laws.

Chiefs stand united

Ralph Tranter, executive director of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, summarized the chiefs' concerns. Immigration enforcement, he said, is a federal responsibility, and for local police forces to add it to their own lists of responsibilities would divert resources, without funding, from other needs "at a critical juncture in Arizona's attempts to fight violent crime."

Such decisions, he said, should be made at municipal levels. All Valley police chiefs stood united in not forcing their officers to become immigration agents.

Mesa Police Chief George Gascon warned against conclusions drawn from disinformation about immigration and crime.

"There are some that would have us believe that undocumented immigrants in the state or in this country are largely responsible for crime," he said. "However, the statistics do not support that."

In Mesa, he said, Hispanics both legal and illegal commit only about one quarter of crimes, exactly proportionate to their segment of the population as a whole.

Other studies have come to similar conclusions.

Furthermore, Gascon, Harris and others warned of the unconstitutionality of targeting one segment of the population or of frightening the immigrant community so that it shuns law enforcement in general.

"This is not being soft on undocumented immigrants who commit serious crimes. On the contrary," he said.

But in a separate news conference, Spencer, the Phoenix police union head, called on leaders to change the city's more than 20-year-old operations policy to give officers easier access to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

ICE is to be contacted only when suspected illegal immigrants are encountered in drophouses or smuggling vehicles, although ICE is automatically contacted when illegal immigrants are jailed.

Last year, citizens tried to put an initiative on the Phoenix ballot that would have forced officers to check immigration status. Then-union President Jake Jacobsen said the change would eliminate an officer's ability to prioritize whom to help.

Still, Spencer said that after hearing from "numerous" officers, he decided to ask in the union's annual survey whether members thought their current operations order improves the quality of life in Phoenix. Seventy-seven percent disagreed, he said.

Spencer said the union now wants city leaders to allow officers to contact ICE directly to interpret or otherwise assist. Officers do not, however, want to turn crime victims or witnesses over to ICE.

Support for initiative?

Arpaio has repeatedly said that his is the only law-enforcement agency that enforces immigration law.

About 160 of Arpaio's deputies and detention officers have been trained by ICE to enforce immigration law.

At their joint news conference, Thomas said that he would support a citizen initiative on the issue.

"I would like to see the language before signing on officially," he said.

Arpaio agreed. "If it takes an initiative to do it, I support it 100 percent," he said.