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To serve, protect, perhaps deport
Suburb cops could act as immigration agents

By John Keilman, Tribune staff reporter and George Houde, a freelance reporter
Published January 15, 2007

The furor over illegal immigration in Carpentersville has now moved to the Police Department, with village leaders seeking to join an increasingly popular federal program that lets local officers act as de facto immigration agents.

Selected officers would be empowered to question people they arrest about their immigration status, check their documents and, if warranted, begin the deportation process.

Carpentersville would be the first Illinois community to join the program, but 10 others around the country have already done so, bringing hundreds of new deportation cases.

In the last eight months, the jail in Charlotte, N.C., has referred almost 1,200 people arrested for other crimes for deportation, a policy some believe has encouraged the undocumented to go elsewhere.

"I'm sure that some [illegal immigrants] have probably left the county because of the chance they could get stopped ... and, boom, be removed from the country," said Sgt. Quinn Stansell of the Mecklenburg County sheriff's office in Charlotte.

Carpentersville Police Chief Dave Neumann said his officers would use the power only to identify illegal immigrants accused of serious crimes, but some believe the temptation to cast a wider net could prove too great.

"Our village with [the federal training] is like putting a gun in the hands of children," said Carpentersville Trustee Linda Ramirez Sliwinski, the only official to vote against applying for the program. "I'm afraid that some of our police officers will use it to do more racial profiling."

The federal program has been in place since 1996, when Congress passed the 287(g) provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act. But it wasn't until 2002 that local and state police departments across the country began to seek the training.

Normally, Carpentersville police ask about a person's place of birth only after an arrest, and they call in an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for questioning about legal status.

Officers with the training can shorten that procedure. When something makes them believe a person they have arrested is in the country unlawfully, they can run his identification through federal databases.

If the check indicates he is an illegal immigrant, officers can issue a summons to appear in federal court for a deportation hearing or hold him until the hearing takes place.

About 40 law-enforcement agencies have applied for the training, and it could take three months before Carpentersville learns whether its request has been approved. Hundreds more agencies have sought information on the program, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.

But others, such as Chicago, have publicly announced that they're not interested.

"Traffic stops are for safety and not for enforcing immigration," said police spokeswoman Monique Bond.

In Alabama, 60 state troopers--about a tenth of the force--have been trained under the program since 2003 and have made 218 immigration-related arrests. Some of them have come in the state's driver's license bureaus, where troopers check for phony documents.

"There are a limited number of [federal immigration] agents in Alabama," said Dorris Teague, spokeswoman for the state's Department of Public Safety. "This allows the troopers, rather than having to wait ... to take immediate action."

But most communities use the authority as a screening tool in their jails.

In Riverside County, Calif., one of four Southern California counties to receive 287(g) authority, almost 700 inmates have been marked for deportation hearings since August.

"It's not like our field deputies are going out to look for these people," said Lt. Joseph McNamara of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. "It's part of the booking process."

Stansell, of the Mecklenburg County sheriff's office, said federal immigration agents have always investigated the backgrounds of people accused of major crimes, such as rape or murder, but many others were able to slip out of the net.

"Certainly if you call [federal immigration] in the middle of the night for a DWI, the chance of them getting out of bed and coming down here is slim to none," Stansell said.

The county sought the authority after a number of high-profile crimes were committed by illegal immigrants, including a man with several drunken-driving arrests who killed a teacher in a car crash.

Deputies there refer about 120 people a month for deportation hearings. Those with clean records accused of minor offenses are set free with a summons to appear in an Atlanta immigration court where a federal judge decides whether to deport them.

But people facing serious charges or who have lengthy rap sheets are held until their criminal cases are over, then sent to Atlanta.

Nobody knows how many of those marked for deportation under the 287(g) program have left the country. Federal immigration officials, noting that immigration hearings can be lengthy and complex, don't track that data.

Angeles Ortega-Moore, executive director of the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, said she supports the idea of deporting criminals but the program has led undocumented residents to become even more wary about law enforcement.

"It creates chaos in our community," she said. "People are fearful that someone may come knocking on our door."

Similar distrust exists in Carpentersville, which recently went through an emotional debate over illegal immigration. Some trustees wanted the village to adopt an ordinance sanctioning landlords who rented property to the undocumented and employers who put them on the payroll.

That measure failed, but last month a majority of trustees voted to apply to the 287(g) program. Neumann, the police chief, said the two to four officers he wants to receive the training would be aimed at "violent criminals and gangbangers who are here illegally and could be deported."

Juan Silva of the Mexican Civic and Cultural Organization of Elgin, which helped lead a 3,000-person demonstration against the ordinance, said he feared that bright line would become blurry.

"They say they will only use it against criminals, but if they eventually get it, it could become an abusive power and they could go after ordinary people," he said.

Robert Hines, who heads the 287(g) program for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said federal supervisors oversee the local officers and the authority is supposed to be invoked only when people are suspected of "serious offenses," not minor matters such as traffic violations.

"We're not looking at crime victims or witnesses to crimes," he said. "It's the people who are committing the crimes--who are causing disruption in the communities--that we're after."