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The U.S. Department of Justice is floating a test balloon to gauge public reaction to a proposal that would allow local police departments to enforce federal immigration laws. Don’t settle for shooting down that balloon. Blast it out of the sky. The idea has been floated before. In 1998, Salt Lake City briefly considered signing onto a pilot project in which its police officers would be deputized to enforce immigration laws. The proposed pilot project sparked a firestorm, with the harshest criticism from Latino groups. Salt Lake City backed off, and no other city stepped forward. The tragedy of Sept. 11 emboldened the DOJ to revive a bad idea whose time has not come. Understandably, the feds want to explore every avenue for sealing the borders against suspected terrorists. With fewer than 2,000 agents, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is woefully understaffed to guard thousands of miles of artificial borders while also rounding up the estimated 8 million people illegally in the United States. Heaven knows the INS could use help. Saddled with the toughest job in law enforcement, the beleaguered agency is handicapped by a shortage of trained personnel, an antiquated computer nonsystem and mixed messages from Congress. While congressional calls for sealing the border are fashionable now, the bureaucrats also cater to contributors who profit from cheap labor from illegal workers. That explains why the enforcement machinery comes down heavily on illegal aliens who make chump change and lightly on corporations who make campaign contributions. No one contests that the INS needs fixing, but the fix will be long, costly and painstaking, especially in an era of budget shortfalls. Thus, foisting the INS’ duties onto local cops must seem like a quick fix. Like most quick fixes, it won’t work; it proves the adage that for every complex problem there’s a simple solution — that doesn’t work. For starters, the hallmark of successful police departments is community policing — building bridges to the various communities within a city and fostering strong public-police trust. The goal is to encourage citizens to report wrongdoing to the police. Most crimes are solved by tips, and most tips flow to local officers. If citizens have confidence in their officers, they come forward. If they don’t, law enforcement inevitably fails. Police departments have spent decades reaching out to immigrants, particularly those from countries whose citizens have for generations learned the hard way not to trust the police. Such outreach programs must counter long-held stereotypes of government officials as brutal, corrupt and oppressive. Though many U.S. police departments have made great progress, all departments are fighting day by day for the trust and confidence of their newest citizens. The bond between police and immigrants is fragile and will unravel if cops begin routinely enforcing immigration laws. As important as immigration laws are, the police have other important laws to enforce, and enforcement depends upon the cooperation of their citizenry. DOMESTIC SITUATIONS Even fighting terrorism cannot be the end-all and be-all of a police department. While anti-terrorism is center stage now, police have other calls to answer, other pressing tasks to tackle. For example, responding to domestic violence must be a top priority of the police. Domestic violence, chiefly inflicted on women and children, is a plague that perpetuates the cycle of violence that turns today’s victims into tomorrow’s victimizers. It is terrorism inside the home. One of the greatest challenges faced by the police is persuading victims of domestic abuse to pick up the phone. This challenge is especially acute in immigrant communities. If the police plunge headlong into enforcing immigration offenses, the effect will be to chill calls to the police from victims or witnesses of domestic abuse. Even in the anti-terrorism arena, it is crucial that the police nurture and extend their community outreach. Our best chance of preventing the next terrorist attack (whether by foreign or domestic terrorists) is for someone to report his or her suspicions to the police. To pick up valuable street intelligence, the police must fight for and win the confidence of their diverse and skittish citizenry. Enforcing immigration laws would not only overwhelm most police forces but also undermine the public-police trust that produces valuable tips. This is not to say that the police cannot cooperate with INS agents. To the contrary, local and federal officials must work together on a myriad of initiatives, including anti-terrorism. Still, it is one thing for the police, after picking up a suspect for state or local offenses, to notify the INS if they have reason to believe the suspect is not legally in the country or to apprehend illegal aliens with outstanding warrants for arrest. It is quite another for the police to scour the streets for people suspected solely of being in the United States illegally. The latter course, civil rights advocates rightly fear, could lead to community profiling. Latino leaders are especially wary of the proposal for local police to enforce immigration laws, fearful that Hispanics will be targeted because of their color, language and national origin. Nor are police chiefs clamoring for these vast, new powers. While most departments are reserving comment until the proposal is finalized, several police chiefs in Texas already have blasted the idea. Theron Bowman, chief of the Arlington Police Department, put it best in an April 5 Dallas Morning News article: “We can’t and won’t throw our scarce resources at quasi-political, vaguely criminal, constitutionally questionable, nor any other evolving issues or unfunded mandates that aren’t high priorities with our citizenry.” That broadside, echoed by other Texas police chiefs, ought to deflate the test balloon. Community policing has served our departments and cities well. Community profiling will sow distrust between the police and public and reap discord. There is an inherent conflict between fostering community policing and immersing the police in an immigration law crackdown. Anyone from Washington, D.C., who tries to convince you otherwise is blowing hot air. Paul Coggins is a principal in the Dallas office of Fish & Richardson, a national intellectual property, complex litigation and technology firm. He is a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas.

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