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Field Guide: Police Role in Immigration Enforcement

By Megan Burks

[Editor’s Note: Field Guide is a weekly email bringing you the news, explainers and action items needed to navigate your changing community. Click here to subscribe.]


SDPD Policy on Adult Undocumented Persons:


Join the local chapter of the May 1st Coalition, a Latino activist group that offers training in immigrant rights:

Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m.

City Heights
Free Skool

4246 Wightman Ave.
San Diego, CA 92105

Local Traffic Incidents Lead to Deportations Despite Perceived Assurances
Last summer, Christian Briseño and Ricardo Gonzales were pulled over in City Heights for a broken taillight. When they failed to produce the right papers, police cuffed them and held them on the street for two hours until Immigration and Customs Enforcement could pick them up. Briseño spent three weeks in the immigration detention system and is now awaiting a deportation hearing. Gonzales is back in Mexico.

Should this have happened? It depends on whom you talk to.

San Diego is generally considered a sanctuary city, meaning that its police department issued an order barring officers from dealing with federal immigration enforcement. Many immigrants consider the order a promise that officers won’t inquire about citizenship status or involve ICE during routine traffic stops or when responding to domestic disturbance calls.

Indeed, the policy does forbid them from doing so. But it also says police are charged with upholding all laws, even federal ones. It then grants permission to call ICE if a subject is found to be undocumented. Some officers make the call and some don’t.

This kind of inconsistent enforcement leaves many immigrants uncertain of their rights and unable to trust local law enforcement.

(Read about a similar situation in South Los Angeles, where some street vendors sell treats to police officers while others get slammed with deportation proceedings.)

Immigrants Fear Reporting Problems to Police
A lack of trust is exactly what officers in the Mid-City Division don’t want. Population density makes the patrol one of San Diego’s most active. Population diversity makes it one of its most complex.

New refugees and immigrants often know little about the U.S. legal system and fear deportation or loss of public assistance benefits if they involve themselves with police. They hesitate to make calls that could keep them safe.

For example, in a KPBS report on the rise of hate crimes against Latinos, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the figures are likely much higher because many Latin American immigrants do not report crimes for fear of the police.

(Hate crimes against Latinos in California rose from 81 to 119 last year, according to KPBS.)

Secure Communities Involves Police in Immigration Enforcement
Further complicating local law enforcement in immigrant neighborhoods is a federal program that taps police data to capture and deport undocumented criminals.

Under Secure Communities, fingerprints of individuals booked into local jails are shared with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which then shares them with ICE. Immigration authorities run the fingerprints through a database. If they find the person is in the United States illegally, they’ll take enforcement action.

Enforcement action typically means that police are asked to detain the individual until ICE agents can get to them. A group recently filed a suit against the Department of Homeland Security, alleging the practice is a violation of the 4th Amendment. Subjects could be held longer than police have authority to based on the crime committed.

Recent reports show more minor offenders like Briseño have been deported that the serious criminals the program set out to net. A study by the American Immigration Lawyers Association takes a look at several cases of people being deported following negligible infractions.

Some states have tried to opt out of Secure Communities, but DHS now says it can operate without permission from the state.

Mobile Fingerprinting Device Stokes Immigrants’ Fears
Sharing agreements like Secure Communities could become more troublesome as mobile biometric devices roll out this fall.

According to National Public Radio, 40 law enforcement agencies will begin piloting a mobile phone attachment that uses face-recognition technology and scans irises and fingerprints. It will be used to identify individuals almost immediately.

There’s concern the personal information could be gathered without probable cause and shared more easily.

White House Halting Some Deportation Cases
Secure Communities and President Obama’s deportation record-his administration has deported nearly 1 million since 2008-has spurred outrage and protests nationwide.

In response, the White House announced last week it would review pending deportation cases and halt those considered “low priority.” Cases involving minor infractions, defendants with no previous criminal record and defendants who were brought to the United States as children could be dropped.

The reprieves are already rolling out. But they do little to reform immigration law or clarify where local law enforcement stands in immigration enforcement.


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