Policing Immigrants: Getting Past the Myths

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Immigration—and how to enforce existing immigration laws—is at the heart of this year’s election campaign.  That makes a new book examining how border jurisdictions, in particular, address illegal immigration especially timely.

Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement and the Front Lines is the result of a study launched in 2007 by a lawyer, a political scientist, a geographer, and a criminologist who applied their different disciplines to a close examination of an issue often clouded by myth, polarized political rhetoric and just misinformation.

TCR staff writer Isidoro Rodriguez spoke with one of the four authors, Scott H. Decker, Foundation Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University, about the challenges of getting accurate data, the often troubled partnership between federal and local authorities in tackling undocumented immigrants, and whether there’s any hope of change.

The other authors (not interviewed) were:Paul G. Lewis, Associate Professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies and Doris Marie Provine, Professor Emerita in the School of Social Transformation (both of Arizona State University) and Monica W. Varsanyi, Associate Professor of Political Science (John Jay College).

 The Crime Report: What prompted you to launch this study and book?

Decker: In Arizona (where three of the four authors are based), we are 98 miles from the border.  Unlike New York or Washington D.C., here the border and immigration are issues of everyday importance and they affect every aspect of life.  So, what we wanted to do was, rather than conducting four separate studies, one study that integrated four different perspectives of how we look at immigration.  We decided to stick with our four fields because it allowed for a common focus that was evident throughout the study and throughout the book.

TCR: The book contains an extensive amount of data.  What were some of the more difficult hurdles in getting such a wealth of information?

Scott Decker

Scott Decker

SD: I think one of the strengths is that it is a mixed-message book: It has both quantitative survey data and qualitative case study data.  Each of those has a challenge in their own right, and putting them together is an even greater challenge.  On the survey side, one of the challenges is always responses.  What we really wanted was interviews with the people involved, and, though we met with some skepticism, we managed to get dozens of interviews.

Some law enforcement organizations were more reluctant to talk to us than others, as well as advocacy groups and social service groups. But once we got the first interviews, and they saw what we were interested in, one referral snowballed into many others.

TCR: Throughout the book there’s a strong focus on the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its efforts to use local police as an extension of   federal uthority.  What are some of the consequences of that arrangement?

SD: The study was done during the recession, so many police departments had seen reductions in the number of sworn personnel.  One of the sheriffs we spoke with, who had been the chief in El Paso at one time, said that ‘when the federal government is willing to come in and do my job then I’d be willing to do their job.’  That underscored the fact that these arrangements largely worked one way.  Locals would deploy their resources, primarily officers, to work on these task forces and enforce federal immigration law.

The distribution didn’t make much sense.  You might think that where there’s large immigration, in states like Texas, New Mexico, or California, that that’s where you would find the most resources. However, there were virtually no [resources] in many of these states.  This reinforced the primary finding in the book: Immigration is a patchwork, and one location will receive lots of enforcement, but their neighbor, virtually none.

Doris Marie Provine

Doris Marie Provine

TCR: In regards to the patchwork you have identified, what do you think the media and the current debate on immigration gets wrong?

SD: The premise to start with is that immigration is an extremely complex process and it is very dependent on local context.  One of the things missed is the historical context. If you look at El Paso and Juarez, there is a lot of daily traffic and commerce and family relations that pass across that bridge that is really related to 400 years of history and economic interdependence between what is really the whole state of Texas and Mexico.

The second issue is the wide variation in immigration enforcement patterns.  The sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, was recently charged with contempt and had, probably, one of the most aggressive immigration policies in the country.  However, the largest city in that county, Phoenix, refused to cooperate with ICE, refused to ask for immigration status during traffic stops or check papers. So you had two interrelated jurisdictions taking wholly different patterns and approaches.

I think that there are two consequences to this.  The first is directed at citizens. We know from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing that when people respect the law they’re more likely to obey the law.  But one of the key corollaries of obeying the law is that the law is both clear and consistent.

When the law isn’t clear about what it is and how it’s enforced, it breeds a lack of conformity and a lack of respect for the law.  Another is the burden this puts on local law enforcement.  More than half of the cities we surveyed didn’t have training and didn’t have a policy for their offers on how to deal with immigration enforcement at a time when it was a national state and local political issue.  For patrol officers to be put out with no training, no policy, and no guidance, really puts law enforcement in jeopardy.

TCR: In the book, you point out that law enforcement offices are being saddled with these responsibilities, ones that shouldn’t be part of their duties at all.  Are there any efforts or methods that could be used to stem this seemingly systematic problem?

Paul G. Lewis

Paul G. Lewis

SD: The Immigration Subcommittee for the International Association of Chiefs of  Police has put out a set of guidelines and standards that departments can adopt or not.  In states like Arizona, there is a statewide law that affects all police departments.  However, one of the challenges with that is that there are tremendous variations across cities. Just imagine how complex it would be in California, Florida or New York.  Professional associations within law enforcement can and should take the lead in developing training and should be part of the negotiations when policy is developed.  Many jurisdictions leave the police out, despite their being a critical component that, in the end, is going to enforce these laws and apply these policies.

TCR: One of the other interesting points of your study was that some of the areas that had the best community relations and practices for handling immigration were ones that had the most to gain financially from a more relaxed stance on immigration.   What are the pros and cons to this kind of this type of position?

SD: We call them accommodation strategies and, of the case studies, Dodge City (Kansas) is one of the clearest examples of that.  After Arizona, the state of Kansas has had the most aggressive and punitive policies towards undocumented immigrants.  Yet (in Dodge City) there is a very clearly understood hands-off policy. The sheriff, immigration and customs, police chief, private citizens, all understood that ICE wasn’t going to show up because that would close the meatpacking business down, the economic engine of the entire town.  So, even in the most aggressive pro-enforcement jurisdictions, there was an accommodation for economic wellbeing .

I don’t think that’s a good way to make policy.  On the other hand, different communities have different histories, experiences, and needs. That’s why, in this country, we have thousands and thousands of local police departments and not one national department.  Sometimes the patchwork actually reflects important social, economic, and historical conditions.

TCR: Many people today consider Donald Trump’s outspoken support for building walls and mass deportations to be laughably impossible.  However, in this book we learn that, if you go back 50-60 years, mass deportations happened under Eisenhower. Do you see a potential for this type of deportation reoccuring today?

Monica Varsanyi

Monica Varsanyi

SD: Efforts like Operation Wetback during Eisenhower’s time were targeted and focused, and there is certainly a possibility that those could occur today.  However, it is important, in context, to understand that, for many advocacy groups, Obama is the “deporter in chief.”  Under his administration more undocumented (immigrants) have been deported than under any prior administration of  the last 20 years.  But the devil is always in the details.  The mother of four children who were born in the United States, children who speak only English and see themselves as Americans, what do you do with them?  If you think about moving a million people from our country to a dozen other countries, the facilities in which they’re held, the transportation process, the logistics of it, are all very complicated issues.  It’s one thing to say ‘get rid of all of them,’  but when you start to contemplate the details of that move, what it means for families, and what the dollars are, it is quite complicated.

TCR: Given that complication, what do you see as the most concrete and objective actions taking place or that could take place to improve the situation?

SD: I’m not very optimistic that congress will provide comprehensive reform. I don’t believe the House will either. That puts local law enforcement in a bad position,  that puts city and state governments in a bad position.  I think it allows the level of irrational discussion about immigration to blur the debate into something different than it should be.  Of course countries should have enforceable borders. Of course people have to establish identity.  But the reality of that gets very little attention in the midst of shouting and yelling about mass deportation or walls.  I’m not an optimist that it’s going to be resolved in the short term at all.

TCR: According to your research, one of the silver linings seems to be the patchwork itself.  Do you see potential in the inner workings between communities and law enforcement in stamping out a constructive method of dealing with these issues?

SD: Many jurisdictions already have.  The examples in Los Angeles are among the best to point to.  One of the challenges of departments large and small is having language skills and expertise available.  So, there has been a real effort to have people who speak local dialects on the force.   Minneapolis has also aggressively hired new officers to represent and work with their own growing immigrant communities.

Isidoro Rodriguez

Isidoro Rodriguez

These are basic principles of community policing rather than raw suppression.  We’ve seen what the raw suppression does, and it often makes things worse.  Community policing, for all of its criticisms, continues to be the best way to integrate local police with residents of their communities.

Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.



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