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States vs. Cities: Immigration Enforcement Policy in 2011

Three years into the Obama administration and no comprehensive immigration reform in sight, immigration enforcement policy seems to be going two directions, characterized by smart policymaking at the city level and ill-advised restrictive policies in the states.

This month, legislators in New York and Washington D.C. made it clear that cities don’t have to get in the business of federal immigration enforcement. Yesterday, New York City Mayor Bloomberg signed an important measure limiting the city’s role in federal immigration enforcement. The new law keeps the Department of Corrections from turning over immigrants with no criminal convictions to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) upon their release from local jail, but makes key exceptions for known gang members or those on the terror watch list. Under this legislation, the first of its kind signed into law, local officials will no longer place immigration holds on New Yorkers without criminal histories.

In Washington, all thirteen members of the D.C. Council co-sponsored a bill which prevents the Department of Corrections from detaining suspected undocumented immigrants without current or previous convictions for violent crimes. The measure further stipulates that local jails will release immigrants after 24 hours if ICE officials fail to pick them up—typically, ICE has 48 hours to retrieve immigrants from local custody. Immigrant communities in Washington and New York should feel safer knowing that local law enforcement officers will no longer be doing double duty as ICE agents; so too, should non-immigrants—fewer resources spent on non-criminals necessarily means more resources allocated toward catching criminals and identifying threats to public safety.

Cities shouldn’t participate in enforcing our outdated civil immigration laws, which are enacted and funded at the federal level. Local governments are tasked with upholding public safety and ensuring communities’ trust in city police—there is evidence that civil immigration enforcement undermines both goals. Further, there is little connection between public safety and deporting undocumented immigrants without criminal pasts. And by narrowing the population eligible for jail time, New York and Washington will save millions in jailing and other correctional costs each year.

Across the country, other localities have been taking steps to restrain costly immigration enforcement programs. In Chicago, Illinois, Arlington, Virginia and elsewhere, elected officials have passed resolutions or laws attempting to opt-out of ICE’s controversial Secure Communities program. The fingerprint sharing “partnership” engages local resources in enforcing immigration laws, so that individuals booked for local crimes have their prints automatically forwarded to federal immigration authorities. In practice, this has resulted in thousands of immigrants deported for civil immigration violations, even though they were originally charged with or convicted of for minor crimes like traffic offenses. In addition, a groundbreaking study found that the program sweeps up Latinos in disproportionate numbers, and negatively affects due process for all immigrants apprehended. Despite these concerns, the Obama administration has essentially forbidden localities from exiting the program, and plans to expand Secure Communities nationwide by 2013.

While many cities are crafting smarter policies to mitigate the impact of immigration enforcement, some states are going the other direction, cooking up costly and expansive policies. In 2011, states including South Carolina, Indiana and Alabama have attempted to tighten the screws on immigrants, passing increasingly restrictive and potentially unconstitutional omnibus laws designed to identify, deport and simply drive out undocumented families.

Alabama’s law is the most radical, broadly requiring individuals to show “proof of immigration status for ‘any transaction between a person and the state or a political subdivision of the state.’” The implications of this provision are staggering—citizens could be required to produce papers when signing up for electricity service or garbage pick-up. It also includes language requiring public schools to determine student’s immigration status and barring landlords from knowingly renting to undocumented immigrants. According to Birmingham Mayor William Bell, the new measure “is virtually impossible to enforce.” Indeed, the law goes further than other states’ measures, even Arizona’s infamous SB1070. Beyond the obvious injustice of attempting to drive workers and consumers without papers out of the state, Alabama’s law fails as a sound piece of public policy thanks to its far-reaching unintended consequences.

The legislation allows residents to show driver’s licenses as proof of immigration status; but those with out-of-state licenses or military IDs could be forced to produce other documents when picking up car tags or signing up for membership at the local pool. It’s well known that certain populations, including African-Americans and the elderly, are less likely than the general population to have citizenship documents. Further, in the aftermath of the law, there were reports that immigrant families fled the state. The Center for American Progress found that the resulting labor shortages led to serious negative economic consequences: one farmer lost an estimated $300,000. These and other reported impacts are reportedly forcing Alabama lawmakers to consider “tweaking” the law.

Fortunately, the federal government successfully filed a complaint to halt elements of Alabama’s immigration law, and ultimately the state’s district court prevented key provisions from going into effect. But the fight is far from over: court challenges were filed this year in Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina to turn back similarly restrictive measures.

Politicians will continue to adopt immigration hawk stances and propose backward-thinking laws against the interests of the general populace, while smart policymakers know that it’s best to leave immigration enforcement to the feds. “Cracking down” on immigration won’t decrease unemployment, improve public schools or create safer neighborhoods; it’s time elected officials put aside silver-bullet immigration laws promising otherwise.

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Posted at 2:11 PM, Nov 23, 2011 in Cities | Criminal Justice | Immigration | New York | States | Urban Affairs
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