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Because I'm not just the grandson of a Mexican immigrant but also the son of a retired cop, my views on illegal immigration are complicated. I'm convinced that immigrants -- whatever their status -- are America's most valuable import. Yet I wasn't raised to take lightly things such as border security or the breaking of laws.
The trouble is that some proposed solutions -- from putting troops on the border to denying citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants -- bring to mind the old saying about the cure being worse than the disease. That includes this one: Allowing local police to enforce federal immigration law.
This dangerous and self-defeating concept is popular with those who think that law enforcement officers are interchangeable, and that one badge is as good as another. As proponents of this approach see it, police chase down criminals (including illegal immigrants) and it makes no difference whether their jurisdiction is local, state or federal.
Some advocates even want to require local police to enforce immigration law -- something opposed by many police associations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal (CLEAR) Act, introduced in 2003 by Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., and reintroduced in 2005, would enlist state and local law enforcement agencies in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. It passed in the House of Representatives as part of a larger immigration bill but has yet to be decided in the Senate.
The wrong answer
A mandate from Washington would be the worst possible thing. This is a decision best left to local and state authorities. We can only hope they make the right one.
In Costa Mesa, Calif., city officials recently made the wrong decision.
At the urging of Mayor Allan Mansoor, the City Council in December voted to authorize local police officers to be trained to enforce immigration law. That makes Costa Mesa, which is an hour's drive south of Los Angeles, the first city in the USA to take this road.
It probably won't be the last. State police agencies in Florida and Alabama and the county sheriff's department in Orange County, where Costa Mesa is located, have sought a "memorandum of understanding" from the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement agency to train their officers to enforce immigration law. An official at ICE told USA TODAY that there are at least 10 more pending inquiries from local authorities in New England, the South and the Midwest -- all of them aiming to take immigration law into their own hands.
In Costa Mesa, officials seem to want a crackdown limited to what Mansoor calls "criminal offenders," or suspects of wrongdoing beyond entering the country illegally.
That includes gang activity. In fact, it's significant that of the first 40 officers for whom the city wants to seek training, most are detectives, gang specialists and jail personnel. Mansoor says that there won't be any sweeps or raids on employers, and that police will not be targeting illegal immigrants.
Those are some silver linings. Another would be if Costa Mesa's experiment excluded beat cops. Once street officers become surrogate immigration agents, all is lost. Whatever amount of trust the police department has built with immigrant communities will deteriorate. The possibility of racial profiling will increase. An initiative intended to combat crime could easily backfire and fuel it instead if immigrants are too scared to report crimes committed against them.
The root of the problem
Besides, let's not forget how Costa Mesa found itself in this predicament. Mansoor says that it's because the federal government has failed to do its duty.
Nonsense. If illegal immigrants are congregating in Costa Mesa -- and thousands of U.S. cities like it -- there's only one reason. It's because people in those places have decided they cannot live without the cheap and readily available labor supplied by illegal immigrants. Those are the real culprits -- the teachers and engineers and soccer moms who love that they can afford upper-class perks (nannies, gardeners and housekeepers) on middle-class wages.
Those are the folks Mansoor and the city should crack down on if they want to solve this problem. At least one other city in California has tried issuing fines to employers who pluck day laborers off streets.
Personally, the cop's son in me would like to see a three-strikes law: The first time you hire an illegal immigrant, you get a warning. The second time, you get a $10,000 fine. The third, you get a week in jail. Currently, the law says you're not in trouble unless you "knowingly" hire an illegal immigrant. But after your third offense, shouldn't you be in the know?
Americans want to get tough on illegal immigrants. Fine. But you can't do that without first getting tough on those who hire them.
I'm probably naive. Politicians know what they can get away with and what they can't. Immigrants who don't vote and can't speak English are not a threat. But employers of cheap labor who are singled out for prosecution can retaliate by spending money to defeat politicians and elect their opponents. That part isn't complicated. Never has been.
Ruben Navarrette is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.
February 15, 2006
Using local police is misguided border patrolling