William J. Bratton is retiring as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department after nearly 40 years of law enforcement, including service as Police Commissioner of Boston and of New York City. These three large cities have some of the most ethnically diverse populations in the nation. What has Chief Bratton learned from his vast experience in law enforcement?
According to an opinion piece published in the Los Angeles Times on Oct. 27, “Criminals are the biggest benefactors when immigrants fear the police. We can't solve crimes that aren't reported because the victims are afraid to come forward to the police.” According to Chief Bratton, this is one reason why the LAPD has declined to participate in a controversial law enforcement program known as 287(g). The program gives local law enforcement agencies the powers of federal immigration agents by entering into agreements with Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “My officers can't prevent or solve crimes if victims or witnesses are unwilling to talk to us because of the fear of being deported,” says Bratton.
But that isn’t the only reason. “We all have an interest in helping our young people develop into healthy, educated and law-abiding adults,” says Bratton. “Breeding fear and distrust of authority among some of our children could increase rates of crime, violence and disorder as those children grow up to become fearful and distrustful adolescents and adults.” It is important to remember that many of these children are U.S. citizens.
Sometimes when I speak about this issue, the question is raised, “Why shouldn’t the undocumented fear the police? They’re criminals, themselves!” This is the drumbeat the opponents of immigration reform pound out relentlessly, but it isn’t exactly true. The vast majority of undocumented aliens in the U.S. have not committed any crime, even if they entered the country without authorization. Crossing the U.S. border without authorization is not a crime; it is a misdemeanor violation of the civil (not criminal) code. It carries no fine or jail time. Hearings to determine whether an alien has violated this statute are conducted before an administrative judge who is under the authority of Executive Office of Immigration Review, not the federal courts. The only penalty is deportation, although the alien might actually spend time in detention while he awaits his hearing. Of course, there are some more serious immigration violations which carry harsher penalties, but the mere fact of having entered the country without permission is not one of them. The same can be said of those who overstay their non-immigrant visas. You might compare it to driving without a license. That doesn’t make you a criminal.
So, when the Chief of the LAPD says that criminals benefit from the fear some victims and witnesses have of the police, he knows that those victims and witnesses are NOT criminals, but generally law-abiding folks who risk deportation if they report real and very serious crimes against them to the police. This leads to a shameful exploitation of a very vulnerable community. The undocumented wife of a U.S. citizen can be abused with impunity because he knows she is afraid of the police. Undocumented workers have their wages stolen by their employers who threaten to call immigration if anybody complains. Workers who entered the country legally on temporary work visas are held in virtual slavery by unscrupulous employers because even those who are legally present can be threatened with deportation. Thugs beat up and rob immigrant workers on payday because they know they won’t report them to a police force that is just as interested in deporting the victim as arresting the criminal.
Even the Mississippi Highway Patrol is so worried about enforcing immigration law that they won’t issue driver licenses to many immigrants who satisfy the provisions of state law. The law says that foreign nationals must prove their identity, their age, and must not be unlawfully present. But the Highway Patrol takes it much farther than that. They will only issue a license to citizens, lawful permanent residents and people with a visa and entry card that is valid for at least 6 months into the future. Their lack of knowledge about the many ways that an immigrant can “not be unlawfully present” leads them to deny driver licenses to many who qualify under the law. When we have tried to educate them about this, it becomes evident that their real problem is this idea that most immigrants are criminals.
It is time we stop stereotyping the undocumented as criminals. It is time we stop tasking local and state police with enforcing immigration law.