Lawmakers debate police role in enforcing immigration lawsby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Minnesota lawmakers are in the midst of a debate over the role local law enforcement should play in upholding federal immigration laws.
Currently, Minneapolis and St. Paul have "separation ordinances," meaning police in those two cities do not ask residents they interact with about their immigration status, unless it pertains to a crime. A bill discussed Wednesday would prohibit that practice.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bob Barrett, R-Shafer, made the case to the House Public Safety committee that it costs Americans money to educate and incarcerate illegal immigrants. He said law enforcement agencies need to cooperate on all levels to combat illegal immigration.
"Certainly one thing we can take away from the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, is that communication between the different branches of government is critically important for the security of our citizens, and the lack of communication between our jurisdictions results in tragedy."
The police chiefs of Minneapolis and St. Paul said they already cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- or ICE -- on task forces to fight human trafficking or drug crimes. But they don't want to undermine the success of their community policing.
St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith testified crime has been dropping in his city since the separation ordinance went into effect in 2004, because immigrant communities trust police.
"If word gets out that police officers, after arrest or during an interview, might ask somebody what nationality, what their immigration status is, that word's going to get out immediately," said Smith.
Opponents of the bill also raised concerns about data practices. What would cities do with all the data they collect on immigration status? Who would pay to train local law enforcement on the complexities of immigration law, and what about lawsuits over racial profiling?
Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, said the bill isn't anti-immigrant, but is designed to send a signal to Washington.
"Somehow we have to change the system that allows people to come here illegally, and then to create incentives such as this sanctuary city -- and I know there's some debate over whether to call it or that -- so that's one of the reasons I signed on as a co-author," he said.
Cities call these "separation ordinances" to emphasize the separate role of local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement. Opponents sometimes use the term "sanctuary ordinances" to describe them.
With a packed roster of opponents lined up to speak, committee chair Tony Cornish alotted one minute apiece to immigrant groups, the ACLU, immigration law professors and others.
Sipra Jha of Asian Women United testified about the vulnerability of battered women who need help from police.
"And if this law goes into effect, sir, battered women, immigrant women will be forced to live in fear," she said, before being told by Rep. Cornish that her time was up.
Democrats on the committee objected to rushing the debate. As the morning session spilled past noon, chairman Cornish announced the vote would be laid over until Thursday.
With 10 Republicans and eight Democrats on the committee, the measure is likely to move on to the next round in the House. The bill does not yet have a Senate companion.
- All Things Considered, 04/27/2011, 5:25 p.m.