Former LAPD Chief Speaks Out on Law Enforcement’s Role and Immigrants

The current immigration system is overtaxed, whether one looks at application backlogs for family-based or employment-based visas, or at the millions of illegal immigrants who stream across the border each year in search of jobs in the underground economy. Immigration reform is long overdue, and I look forward to this debate taking center stage, once the health care debate is concluded.

Despite the other problems in the system, illegal immigration is likely to be the chief focus of our national debate. For many, illegal immigration raises issues of fairness, particularly when they may feel that so many people who come here “by the book,” by investing heavily of their time, money, and emotional energy to get legal permission to come to the United States.

That said, I don’t believe that just any solution will do, most of all not the highly-politicized, stopgap measures that create more problems than they solve. One of these is the section 287(g) program that allows local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws, under agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

According to William Bratton, who recently retired as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), local law enforcement should be just that: local and law enforcement, not immigration enforcement. In a recent opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Chief Bratton voiced his concerns – widely echoed in the law enforcement community – that using local police resources to enforce federal immigration laws puts public safety at risk, for all of us. (See Los Angeles Times, “The LAPD fights crime, not illegal immigration,” (October 27, 2009), by William J. Bratton,,0,1037266.story).

Local police forces already have their hands full, dealing with gangs, drugs, violent crime, and the endemic property crimes of the recession period. Asking them to take on additional responsibilities as a sort of federal auxiliary police will take their focus from their core mission of ensuring local public safety. Time, money, and personnel are finite resources, and the more local police expend on complex questions of immigration status, the less is left for community policing, criminal investigations, and solving crimes.

The big concern, Bratton says, is that crime victims and witnesses will not come forward with crucial information if they fear police may arrest them for immigration violations. This amounts to a “free pass” for criminals to victimize illegal immigrants, and to silence witnesses who might otherwise help to get violent criminals convicted, and off the streets. After all, we want people – whatever their immigration status – to come forward and help police to solve crimes and get the guilty behind bars. If the public – including illegal immigrants – doesn’t trust the police, Bratton argues, we all lose.

There are many other reasons 287(g) agreements are problematic – not the least of which is the potential for racial profiling, and countless other civil liberties concerns – but when a career police officer of William Bratton’s stature warns that these measures are affecting public safety, we would do well to listen.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.