Protect the public, not the criminals

By Jessica M. Vaughan on July 23, 2008

The flap over which law enforcement agency is to blame for accused rapist Marco Riz’s continued illegal presence in Rhode Island has exposed the potential problems that result when local officials cling to the irresponsible position that immigration law enforcement is exclusively a federal issue, of which they can wash their hands without consequences for their community. For years, a handful of police chiefs, state lawmakers, and other opinion leaders in Rhode Island, egged on by special interest groups, have hidden behind this imaginary line in the sand, sometimes complaining about illegal immigration’s fiscal and social costs, while denying the role their own policies have played in encouraging illegal settlement, and neglecting to make use of tools made available by the federal government that would help address the problem.

While it is true that the U.S. Congress and federal agencies, mainly the Department of Homeland Security, play the leading role in immigration policy and enforcement, state governments have to do more than sit back and watch if they hope to avoid the problems caused by illegal immigration. With an estimated 12 million illegal aliens residing in the country, including perhaps 40,000 in Rhode Island, it is unrealistic to expect the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to clean it up single-handedly, any more than the DEA should be solely responsible for drug law enforcement, or the EPA for environmental protection.

With finite resources and a long list of mission priorities that includes counter-terrorism, transnational gang suppression, document fraud, human smuggling, customs violations, and illegal hiring, ICE practices triage with respect to the removal of illegal aliens and other immigrants who commit crimes. Their stated policy is to use their limited number of agents to go after “the worst of the worst,” usually violent or serious felons and those who have been removed before.

Unfortunately, that leaves a lot of “the worst” still on the streets and threatening our well-being. That is where state and local law enforcement come in, as they have the primary responsibility to protect the public.

While it is perhaps obvious that local police officers would have the first law enforcement encounter with criminal illegal aliens, putting them in the best position to interrupt their illegal sojourn here, Mayor Cicilline and Chief Esserman, have broken ranks with colleagues, including the Providence police union and the Rhode Island Police Chief’s Association, by adopting a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on immigration violations. The mayor and police chief maintain that involvement in immigration law enforcement, even the most basic process of electronically checking with ICE’s 24/7 Law Enforcement Support Center to see if a suspect is wanted on other serious charges (as in the Riz case), would damage police relationships with immigrant communities and scare immigrants from reporting crimes. Even as other state law enforcement agencies are regular users of ICE’s call center, logging hundreds of queries this year, the Providence Police Department has used it only twice. Last year these checks enabled ICE to take custody of more than 20,000 criminals nationwide, making the service a significant force multiplier.

Though cited as gospel by immigrant advocacy and civil liberties groups, the so-called chilling effect on immigrant crime reporting is in fact unsubstantiated in crime statistics, social science research, and real-life experience. On the contrary, data from the most authoritative source on crime reporting, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, suggest that immigrants seem to be slightly more likely to report crimes than the general population. For example, in 2005, the most recent year available, Hispanics reported 51 percent of all violent crime victimizations to police, while non-Hispanics reported 47 percent.

The best research on the topic, a 2001 government-funded study by well-known crime scholar Robert C. Davis and two associates, notes that when immigrants choose not to report crime, it is not because they are afraid of being identified for deportation, but because of language barriers, or because they do not understand how the American system of justice works.

My own Department of Justice-funded research has found that the most successful police strategies for preserving public safety while maintaining good relationships with the immigrant communities involve active outreach programs emphasizing that crime victims and witnesses are not targets of immigration law enforcement, not policies that interfere with the identification of criminal aliens. After all, immigrant criminals typically prey on fellow immigrants, so failing to report them to ICE leaves immigrant communities disproportionately exposed to their bad behavior.

Besides, if police officers are not cooperating with ICE, they cannot take advantage of special incentives and protections that immigration law offers to crime victims, witnesses and informants. These can prove critical to successfully prosecuting domestic violence and gang cases, for example.

Instead of working with Rhode Island police departments to dispel any fear of authorities immigrants may bring with them, local immigrant and civil liberties advocacy groups have instead sought to dissuade police from taking even the most elementary steps to protect the public from criminal aliens. These same groups worked with Sen. Majority Leader Paiva-Weed and the business groups who profit from unchecked access to illegal workers to kill the hugely popular Cote-Brien E-Verify bill that would have made it much harder for illegal aliens, including the criminals, to find work in Rhode Island. They are also the ones who have been most hysterical about Governor Carcieri’s quite sensible Executive Order.

Mayor Cicilline and Chief Esserman need to rethink their opposition to routinely screening criminal suspects for immigration violations. In addition, the Providence Police Department should accept the basic immigration law training offered by ICE, which every other agency in the state will be attending. Their priority should be to protect the residents of Providence, citizen and immigrant alike, not the criminals.