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Big cities reluctant to target illegals

Judy Keen
USA TODAY

Despite a federal effort to enlist help from local police to catch illegal immigrants, some of the USA's biggest cities are declining to enforce immigration laws.

Police chiefs, mayors and city councils are ordering local cops not to get involved as federal agents crack down on people in the country illegally.

"Vulnerable people have always needed to see the police as being there to protect and serve, and that can't happen when the first words out of a cop's mouth are, 'I need to see your papers,' " Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been visiting police conventions in an effort to have departments join a voluntary program. ICE has trained officers in seven jurisdictions to identify, process and detain illegal immigrants, said Robert Hines, who heads the program started in 1996. Participants include state police in Alabama and Florida, the Arizona corrections department and sheriff's departments in San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Riverside counties in California and Mecklenburg County, N.C.

Several jurisdictions have refused to help. Chicago police and city workers are prohibited from asking immigrants about their legal status. Rybak asked ICE agents last month to stop identifying themselves as "police." New York City's public hospitals promised last month that they would keep secret an immigrant's legal status.

In the broadest signal of opposition, a national group representing 57 big-city police chiefs warned this month that local enforcement of federal immigration laws would "undermine trust and cooperation" among immigrants.

The Major Cities Chiefs Association said in recommendations to President Bush and Congress that police have long worked with federal agents to pursue illegal immigrants suspected of crimes. The group said helping identify those suspected only of being in the USA illegally could backfire.

"We have spent many years ... getting special communities to talk to us, to report crime, to be witnesses," said Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt. "If we stop individuals (to ask about immigration status), we would lose all of that."

The association — including police chiefs from Los Angeles, Detroit, Seattle and Miami — said most departments can't afford to spend time quizzing immigrants. Members fear that "the call for local enforcement of immigration laws signals the beginning of a trend towards local police agencies being asked to enter other areas of federal regulation or enforcement."

Hines said, "The cooperation we get for the most part is outstanding." Illegal immigration "is all of our problem, because these people are here in violation of law."

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