October 2, 2007

Can’t teach an old law new tricks

The governor wants to empower local cops to enforce federal immigration law. Never mind that that’s unnecessaryfamiliar vehicle: Photo courtesy of kentucky state police "This familiar vehicle might soon drive illegal immigrants down the road to deportation."Gov. Ernie Fletcher wants to wrangle with illegal immigration in the Bluegrass. He announced last week his desire to root out illegal immigrants among the state’s prison populations, and will seek federal funds to empower five state and local law enforcement officers to perform immigration enforcement duties so illegal immigrants do not return to Kentucky communities after they’ve served time for felonies.Meanwhile, state Sen. Robert Stivers, R-25, plans to introduce legislation for the next General Assembly session that will build on the governor’s momentum, specifying that a state employee trained with those federal funds could detain people who are arrested without proper documentation, starting them on the road to deportation. Rep. Melvin Henley, D-5, proposed similar legislation this year that would also require jailers to report illegal immigrants in their populations.The proposals seem like an efficient way to deal with illegal immigrants who commit crimes. But they also represent exactly how the state has been dealing with this issue already, which suggests this is yet another political maneuver.State and local patrol officers would be allowed to enforce immigration law in Kentucky when dealing with someone suspected of a state crime more than a traffic offense, under a provision in federal immigration law known as 287(g). A dozen states already have such agreements, though nearly all are at the county level.Louisville attorney Rusty O’Brien, who specializes in immigration law, said he doesn’t see any reason to fund state personnel to replicate the duties of an entire division of the federal government.Illegal immigrants are often found with outdated documents, or none at all, when they’re picked up for other offenses, O’Brien said. Then Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities are contacted, and the person’s file is flagged, alerting the feds to the situation. When he gets calls from people unable to bail family members out of jail, O’Brien said, it’s often because the lack of proper documents has raised a red flag for police, who then called federal ICE agents. Offenders are usually removed from Kentucky within two or three days.ICE isn’t exactly in dire need of five extra Kentucky officers either. Because of security issues, the office can’t say exactly how many officers work in Kentucky, but Gail Montenegro, the spokesperson for the ICE office that covers the state, said there are about 15,000 employees nationwide, about 12,000 of whom are enforcement officers. She said ICE always welcomes new people, “but if you look at the numbers over the last several years, we’ve been increasing our illegal immigration arrests. So we are doing a pretty good job of enforcing the laws with our current staffing.”Should the governor get his funding, the likely impact is unclear. Of the 460 foreign-born felons in state prisons, the governor’s office is unsure how many are here illegally. That figure may include people who have already attained U.S. citizenship. The push for local enforcement isn’t backed up by numbers detailing how many foreign-born people living in Kentucky commit crimes, or how their recidivism rates compare to those of citizens and other legal residents, according to the governor’s office. What’s more, the state ICE-trained officers are touted as a way to reduce public safety risk, but nobody can say exactly what extra “risk” illegal immigrants present after they’ve served their time.Sen. Stivers, who said he was contacted on the matter by Fletcher’s office last month, admits he hasn’t seen any problems in his Eastern Kentucky district, but that anecdotes from other parts of the state are evidence enough for him. He has also been encouraged by media coverage, which has generated a strong anti-immigration response from his constituents.“It kind of amazes me, really,” Stivers said. “I’ve been around here 11 years and I haven’t seen anything like this. I’ve done more radio and television interviews than ever before.”That is likely a big part of the governor’s motivation. The 287(g) provision has been part of immigration law since 1996, but Congress’s recent failure to address immigration issues has sparked a wave of local action from concerned communities, and from politicians who recognize it as a handy political tool. Half of the 287(g) trainings occurred this year alone. O’Brien said other states’ decisions to allow local cops to enforce federal immigration law have led to a sense of paranoia — largely among foreign-born legal residents who fear a simple document mix-up might send them toward deportation. That’s the exact opposite of the immigrant-friendly climate percolating in Louisville, a city profiled last month in The Wall Street Journal as a model for embracing internationals.“It’s happening across the country with local law enforcement and that type of thing getting involved in the federal immigration process,” O’Brien said. “I think they’re overstepping their bounds, quite frankly.” Contact the writer at jennifer@leoweekly.com