Ga. state troopers may enforce federal laws

Mary Lou Pickel, Staff
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Copyright 2006 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 

About a dozen state troopers could be trained to enforce immigration laws in Georgia as the state moves toward implementing an immigration reform bill passed in the spring.

"It's not like we're going to be out there as a branch of the federal government," Georgia Department of Public Safety spokesman Gordy Wright said. "But the trooper who does encounter an immigration problem during a traffic stop would have the power to take action."

An agreement for local officers to enforce federal immigration laws is one of the provisions called for in Senate Bill 529, the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act sponsored by Sen. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) and signed into law by Gov. Sonny Perdue in April.

Col. Bill Hitchens, commissioner of the Department of Public Safety, has met with Ken Smith, special agent in charge of investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Atlanta, to talk about how his troopers will be trained to enforce such laws. Right now, only state troopers are under consideration.

Hitchens would like to start with 12 to 15 troopers statewide in the department's interdiction unit. Those troopers work drug cases and are equipped with small electronic devices that can translate questions into several languages during a traffic stop, he said.

Rogers hopes other law enforcement agencies will follow suit and ask for training if the program works out well.

The training is paid for with federal dollars. A bigger obstacle than training dollars is designing a program that works, Smith said. One issue will be whether jails have access to the federal immigration database.

"We don't want a trooper in Tifton to be trained and not be able to access a computer system or a place to process them," Smith said.

Doraville Police Chief John King said he was concerned that local police enforcement of immigration laws would have a chilling effect on relations between immigrants and police.

"I have immigrants from all over the world --- Asian, Hispanic, Eastern European," King said.

Already, King said, immigrants are reluctant to report crimes or act as witnesses for fear that interaction with the police could lead to deportation.

Hitchens stressed that troopers would make immigration arrests only as part of their normal duties.

"We're not going to any farm or packinghouse or anyplace where we think there's an abundance of illegal aliens and taking 100 troopers and arresting everybody," Hitchens said. "But if they're coming down the road and weaving, and the trooper has probable cause, he can stop them and take action as appropriate."

About a dozen law enforcement agencies nationwide are in discussions with ICE to initiate immigration training agreements, said Michael Gilhooly, a spokesman for ICE.

ICE will respond to those law enforcement agencies that have questions about enforcing federal immigration laws, Smith said. "We rely on them to initiate the request."

Federal law has allowed such cross-training of officers for the past 10 years. Alabama and Florida have trained troopers to enforce immigration laws; so has the Arizona Department of Corrections, sheriff's workers in three California counties and Mecklenburg County, N.C., Gilhooly said.

Federal training lasts about 4 1/2 weeks and teaches troopers how to use federal databases to make a positive identification of a subject and, if necessary, begin the process to remove someone from the United States. 
July 18, 2006

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