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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: How Failure to Enact Immigration Reform Impacts Law Enforcement Relations Between Localities and the Federal Government

By Theresa Cardinal Brown

Monday, April 21, 2014

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Last week, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia signed an executive order limiting the cooperation of the city’s law enforcement agency with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on detainers—requests to hold individuals in custody for immigration enforcement. In doing so, Philadelphia joined many other jurisdictions across the country that have enacted such policies in the last several years, including the State of California which enacted the TRUST Act which prohibits law enforcement agencies throughout the state from detaining individuals at ICE’s request, unless the individuals have been convicted of certain crimes or other conditions are met. The increasing number of jurisdictions undertaking these limitations on cooperation with ICE immigration enforcement actions is a direct result of the failure to enact immigration reform at the national level.

The primary role of most state and local law enforcement is to ensure the safety and security of their communities and jurisdictions, to protect the populations they serve, and to investigate state, local and some federal crimes. Increasingly, law enforcement officials have come to adopt the concept of community policing which relies on “collaborative partnerships between the law enforcement agency and the individuals and organizations they serve to develop solutions to problems and increase trust in police.” At the same time, state and local law enforcement agencies frequently rely on cooperation with federal law enforcement partners in the investigation and prevention of crime in their jurisdictions, and vice versa. From information sharing on criminal histories and criminal intelligence, to joint task forces against drugs, gangs and terrorism, these partnerships multiply the resources available to any single agency and improve overall public safety. Success in these endeavors, both community policing and federal and local law enforcement partnerships, is based on a foundation of trust and mutual benefit.

The continued failure to enact immigration reform has put state and local law enforcement agencies “between a rock and a hard place.” The presence of undocumented immigrants in their communities makes those communities increasingly fearful of the types of partnerships necessary for community policing to be successful, especially when encounters with law enforcement can mean deportation for them or their family members. While limiting cooperation on ICE detainers can help assure those communities that they will not suffer consequences from working with local law enforcement to prevent and deter crime in their neighborhoods, it can create tension when those same agencies seek cooperation on other matters that ICE regularly also investigates, such as gangs, firearms trafficking, child pornography, human trafficking, money laundering and transnational criminal enterprises.

A 2012 paper from the Police Executive Research Forum reported that as federal policy remains unsettled, and more states take matters into their own hands (either seeking more or less immigration enforcement), police executives will be faced with having to manage the difficult path between them. “Congress is not expected to approve comprehensive legislation on immigration reform in the foreseeable future. As a result, police chiefs noted that they must operate in a policy environment that is not always coherent.” As law enforcement professionals, most officers and agents generally try to stay above the policy difficulties and work together to enforce the laws, but until there is federal clarity in immigration law and policy, the tension will continue to grow and law enforcement agencies at every level will continue to be between a rock and a hard place.