Jose Perez, a Syracuse lawyer, takes issue with the local police officer or state trooper who asks him to hand over proof of his immigration status.
“I am a U.S. citizen. I have a thick accent. I live here,” he said. “Why should he ask me where I’m from?”
Perez’s concerns are at the heart of a hotly-contested, ongoing debate about immigration policy. A key issue is how much authority local law enforcement has to enforce federal immigration laws. Across the country, the federal government and civil rights advocates are going to court to challenge local laws to enforce immigration. The federal government is suing at least four states—Arizona, South Carolina, Utah and Alabama—over state-passed immigration laws.
But a spokesman for the Syracuse Police Department says officers do not overstep their authority. Asking for identification of those the police contact is normal business, said Sgt. Tom Connellan, the department’s spokesperson. On immigration status, he said he highly doubts that police question people stopped.
“I don’t even know that we actually do that on a regular basis,” Connellan said. But the department is considering proposed changes to anti-discrimination programs, he said, that would combat racial profiling—an issue raised by local law enforcement’s approach to immigration enforcement.
Some statistics on the immigration issue:
- An estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants lived in the U.S. in 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
- 16,596 Onondaga County residents — 3.5 percent — are not U.S. citizens, according to the 2011 U.S. Census Community Survey. It’s not clear if any of those are illegal immigrants.
- In an example of conflicting studies on racial profiling by Syracuse police, one study in 2010 by Syracuse University and the University of Akron found that Syracuse-area Hispanics were stopped and ticketed or arrested more than Caucasians and African Americans. Syracuse police have disputed the study’s findings, attributing frequent stops, frisks and arrests of minorities to geography, with more minorities living in high-crime areas.
- But another study in 2010 by The John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety, a non-profit consulting firm that works often with police, found that Syracuse police did not exhibit racial bias in traffic stops from 2006 through 2009.
Congress and the courts have long given local law enforcement limited authority to enforce some immigration laws. Historically, local law enforcement enforces criminal laws, and federal authorities enforce civil laws. For example, illegal immigration—the civil offense of being in the country without proper documentation—is enforced by the federal agencies U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Border Patrol. If immigration status is connected to a crime under investigation, such as alien smuggling or terrorism, then local law enforcement’s authority is triggered.
To deal with growing concerns over immigration, Congress has expanded some authority of local law enforcement. With special agreements, called 278(g) agreements, the federal government essentially deputizes and trains local law enforcement to work with federal authorities to enforce immigration law. Under those agreements, ICE has trained and certified over 1,500 local police, troopers and sheriffs to take on some responsibilities of ICE agents. Across the U.S., 68 law enforcement agencies in 24 states have 278(g) agreements. Neither the city of Syracuse nor the state of New York has a 278(g) agreement.
In Syracuse, civil rights advocates argue that when local law enforcement officers call ICE and Border Patrol after pulling over non-white or Spanish-speaking drivers and passengers, this opens the door to racial bias and profiling. That, advocates say, threatens residents’ civil rights. They call for Syracuse Police to revise its anti-discrimination policy to prohibit officers from calling ICE or Border Patrol during routine traffic stops.
Syracuse-area law enforcement officers, according to civil rights advocates, asked for immigration papers in at least a dozen routine traffic stops last year. In these cases, they said, ICE and Border Patrol were called to the scene by city police and area troopers.
Syracuse police rarely deal with ICE and Border Patrol, said department spokesperson Sgt. Connellan. For the Syracuse police, asking for drivers’ identification is common practice and calling immigration is not, said Connellan. When officers stop cars, he said, they ask for identification in order to complete a “citizen contact form.” This helps the department keep tabs on racial profiling, he said.
Working with ICE or Border Patrol, he said, is uncommon for the police. “We don’t deal with ICE or Border Patrol on a regular basis at all,” he said.
Police Chief Frank Fowler did not respond to multiple interview requests. Late last year, he met with Syracuse lawyer Perez, who has drafted a proposal to the police anti-discrimination policy with the Central New York chapter of ALCU. Perez, Fowler and city lawyers met to discuss the department’s anti-discrimination and racial profiling policy. Fowler is considering anti-discrimination training instead of policy changes, said department spokesperson Connellan.
Perez and other advocates say they’re asking for two things. They want local law enforcement to avoid asking about national origin or immigration status of people they approach unless a federal agency has asked the local officers to do so. Second, they ask that police not detain people in order to call ICE or Border Patrol simply to clarify immigration status.
Those changes in policy could help prevent racial profiling, said Rebecca Fuentes of Syracuse, coordinator of the Workers’ Center of Central New York. It would also help prevent deportation of illegal immigrants who have violated the civil offense of being in the U.S. without proper documentation but who have not been convicted of any crime, she said.
Punishment of non-criminal illegal immigrants, she said, creates fear in the community, especially on the Near Westside, where a concentration of Spanish-speaking immigrants live. Sometimes the fear, she said, means undocumented immigrants can’t get help—even against abuse. She recalled the dilemma of a woman victimized by domestic violence who was afraid to turn to police for help because she feared deportation.
Under a recent shift in federal policy, ICE officials said, deporting criminals is the government’s priority when working with local law enforcement. Priority targets are convicted criminals, fugitives dodging previous immigration charges, illegal immigrants re-entering the country after deportation and recent border crossers, said Jillian Christensen, an ICE spokesperson.
The number of immigrants arrested or detained during routine traffic stops is unclear, because ICE does not file public reports on how illegal immigrants were arrested or brought into the system. That is particularly troubling to a government watchdog research group at Syracuse University, the Transactional Record Access Clearinghouse, said Sue Long. Through the Freedom of Information Act, she first began asking ICE for that information in 2005—and still hasn’t gotten it.
With a wide range of law enforcement and immigration authorities in Syracuse, she said, it’s hard to tell how illegal immigrants are picked up. “We’re 100 miles from the border,” she said, “so there’s lots of hands in the pot.”
For Jose Perez, the Syracuse civil rights lawyer, a concern is how police decide to question a person about his or her immigration status and to call federal immigration authorities. If the trigger is “just because you look Latino” or have an accent as he does, he said, that would be unacceptable.
Added Perez: “That’s racial profiling — and that’s wrong.”
(Elizabeth Carey is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)