Maplewood cops can't ask about your immigration status anymore

The new policy aims to make undocumented immigrants feel comfortable reporting crimes and acting as witnesses.

The new policy aims to make undocumented immigrants feel comfortable reporting crimes and acting as witnesses.

Fear not, undocumented immigrants. The next time you’re cruising through Maplewood and the man stops you for jaywalking, he can’t inquire about your green card (or lack thereof).

Until now the Maplewood cops had no official guidelines on when it’s acceptable to question someone’s immigration status. Under the new policy, officers can only ask about it if it’s relevant to their investigation. 

The change was spurred by a phone call Maplewood Police Chief Paul Schnell received from someone who was stopped and questioned about their immigration status a few months ago. The person wanted to know if Maplewood had a policy against the random line of questioning, as Minneapolis and St. Paul do. Schnell says the policy was also recommended in a federal report on the future of policing.

“This was one we felt was relatively low-hanging fruit,” he says.

Although Schnell could have implemented the change on his own, he wanted to give the community a chance to weigh in through Maplewood’s Human Rights Commission. This week the city’s Human Rights Commission gave its unanimous approval.

“This was a topic that crossed paths for me personally,” says commission member Elizabeth “Marie” Garza, a Mexican-American born in the U.S. “And I know law enforcement, this is a touchy subject.”

The policy change will give cops, who already have enough to worry about, guidelines on how to handle — or not handle — immigration questions, she says. In the past it was up to the officer’s discretion.

One particular point of concern was that undocumented immigrants wouldn’t report crimes or act as witnesses if they feared being deported.

“One of the hardships that we do have is getting undocumented people to come out of the shadows,” Garza says. “We have them in Maplewood. But it’s hard because [they don’t] trust police.”

Garza wasn’t aware of specific racial profiling incidents in Maplewood, though it would be "naïve" to think it never happens, she says. However, the commission member recalls a case when police went to a man’s home believing he was someone else. Since he didn’t have any papers, he couldn’t prove that he wasn’t the perp they were looking for.

“The police took him, detained him, and he was on the verge of being deported,” Garza says.

Ultimately, the man was not deported, Schnell says. And local cops actually have little control over bouncing paperless immigrants from America. So in most situations, it’s relatively pointless to ask about someone’s status, he says.

“The reality is even if you did have contacts with an undocumented person, there really is very little that local law enforcement can do,” Schnell says. “We’re not going to arrest in that case and you can’t just grab people and detain them and turn them over to immigration authorities. It just doesn’t work that way.”