The New Immigration Cops

By Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2006

Cities and States Take On Difficult Duty

Of Handling Undocumented Workers



February 2, 2006; Page B1

Alabama state trooper Gary Hetzel usually stops people for going over the speed limit. Now, he sometimes arrests them for illegally crossing over the U.S. border, too.

Recently he pulled over a van for speeding and ended up detaining 14 undocumented immigrants who had paid smugglers at the Mexican border to transport them to Atlanta. The van's driver and co-driver were charged with human smuggling; the 14 immigrants were deported. "If I hadn't been trained, I would have just ticketed the driver for speeding and sent them on their way," said Mr. Hetzel.

Such actions are normally the province of federal immigration agents. But even though some police groups have concerns, a slew of cities and states in the U.S. are increasingly taking on the duty of verifying the immigration status of people stopped for traffic infractions and other violations. In Alabama, about 160 illegal immigrants have been arrested since the state entered a special partnership in 2003 with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement unit of Homeland Security, or ICE as it is known. Under this arrangement, officers such as Mr. Hetzel are specially trained in some immigration enforcement duties.

Alabama decided to join the program because local officials believed ICE's small staff in the state was unable to cope with the swelling numbers of illegal immigrants. Last fall, Gov. Bob Riley pledged to double the number of state troopers trained to deal with illegal immigrants, saying: "Alabama welcomes those who enter the country legally, but we won't stand idly by and do nothing when we catch illegal immigrants in our state."

Forty-four of the 650 state troopers in the state, a figure that includes administrative and field officers, have taken the five-week training course and are now authorized to enforce federal immigration law...

The ICE partnership empowers local officers to temporarily detain someone who has violated federal immigration law -- something that they are typically not allowed to do. That is a valuable tool in states where there are few ICE agents. The trained officers usually don't participate in sweeps or actively search for illegal immigrants; the emphasis is on human smugglers and convicted felons that officers come across during the course of their duties.

The federal program to train local police officers in such duties has existed since 1996. Florida, the first state to join the federal program in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, tailored its version to help block possible terrorist infiltrators. Interest in the program has taken off recently as the national debate over illegal immigration has heated up.

In recent months, ICE has received requests from several states in New England and the Midwest, as well as counties in Texas and California...

"It has proven very difficult for the federal government to increase manpower in the enforcement of immigration law fast enough," says Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, who oversaw the application of the program when he served as counsel to the U.S. attorney general from 2001 to 2003. "This provision allows those states that want to help to fill in the gap."

...The program's primary focus would be on identifying criminals.

...civilian jail personnel in Los Angeles and San Bernadino counties who have undergone ICE training are screening foreign-born inmates to determine whether they can be deported, according to an ICE spokeswoman.

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com2

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