State Troopers Should Be Trained in Immigration Law

By Jessica M. Vaughan on December 10, 2006

The Milford (Mass.) Daily News, December 10, 2006

Shortly after midnight on September 9, 2001, Maryland state trooper Joseph Catalano pulled over a red Mitsubishi rental car traveling 90 miles per hour in a 65 mph zone on I-95 north of Baltimore. The driver, Ziad Jarrah, had a Florida driver's license and quietly accepted the $270 fine issued by Catalano six minutes later before continuing on to join his friends at a hotel in New Jersey. Two days later, Jarrah boarded United Airlines flight 93, which he would later pilot into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing everyone aboard.

Trooper Catalano had no way of knowing that Jarrah was an illegal alien who had overstayed his business visitor visa. If Governor-elect Patrick cancels the agreement just completed by the Romney administration to train Massachusetts state troopers to identify and possibly detain illegal aliens in cooperation with federal immigration authorities, as ethnic advocacy groups have called on him to do, future terrorists and criminal aliens will continue to have free passage on Massachusetts highways, and our troopers will be similarly handicapped in their efforts to keep our communities and our country safe.

No mere "gimmick" aimed at placating voters who are rightfully angry with the federal government's failure to control illegal immigration, the training program for state troopers, known as the 287(g) program after the relevant section of the immigration statute, is a reasonable and effective homeland security policy that has been field tested with excellent results in other states. Florida was the first to participate, soon after 9/11. Since then, according to federal documents, its sixty-two 287(g)-trained law enforcement officers, who are members of special security task forces, have arrested more than 130 people, some of whom were involved in illegal surveillance activities and working illegally in airports, seaports, and nuclear power plants. Five were later convicted for firearms possession, and many more were using fake U.S. passports and other travel documents or fraudulently using Social Security numbers.

Alabama, which is criss-crossed by major highways that serve as smuggling routes, has fifty-seven 287(g)-trained state troopers, who have been able to disrupt several alien smuggling and identity fraud rings since receiving the training in 2003. In addition, a number of the aliens identified by these troopers were later convicted for rape, methamphetamine trafficking, burglary, and other serious crimes.

Ethnic advocacy groups protest that giving state troopers training in immigration law will empower them to trample on the rights of immigrants and have a chilling effect on relations with law enforcement in immigrant communities. On the contrary, the training will improve the officers' ability to correctly determine the status of a non-citizen, so that green card holders, foreign students, guestworkers and others here legally will not be harassed, while those without legal status receive closer scrutiny. The five-week training includes sessions on civil rights, cultural sensitivity, and illegal racial profiling. Besides, criminal aliens typically prey on those within their own communities, so making sure that these offenders are identified and flagged for removal will enhance public safety for all. Gov. Romney's spokesman has said that the Massachusetts agreement is for troopers who serve on special fugitive or gang task forces where knowledge of immigration law is essential, not for routine traffic patrols.

Public safety officials across the country have seen the value of enlisting the support of not just state troopers, but also police, sheriffs, and correctional officers to the cause of homeland security and immigration law enforcement. Faced with an illegal alien population of more than 12 million, federal officials tasked with identifying and removing them surely need all the help they can get. About 30 state and local agencies are in some stage of negotiating an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the federal agency responsible for the program, to the point where ICE is unable to keep up with demand. In the interim, some jurisdictions are hoping to take advantage of immigration law training available in the private sector so that their officers have a working understanding of the law and procedures and can approach their daily encounters with immigrants from a position of knowledge.

Allowing our state troopers to participate in a program that will improve their policing and make us all safer makes good political sense as well as good policy sense. If assuring the Commonwealth of his commitment to law enforcement and public safety remains a priority for Deval Patrick, he should rush to endorse and sustain this program regardless of who launched it.

Jessica M. Vaughan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.