Stopping the Status Seekers

St. Paul City Council member Pat Harris believes police officers need to concentrate on stemming crime rather than harassing immigrants
Diana Watters

A coalition of labor, religious, and social justice organizations is pushing the city of St. Paul to formally declare that its employees are prohibited from enforcing federal immigration laws. Supporters of the measure say that there is substantial evidence that immigrants--even those here legally--avoid dealing with police officers, firefighters, and other city employees for fear of being grilled on their immigration status or even deported.

"I have heard stories of people going to apply for a library card and being asked whether they were legal residents," says Elizabeth Badillo-Moorman, an organizer with Isaiah, a faith-based organization that is supporting the measure. "There's always people at all levels who decide they want to make it their personal duty to be the immigrant officer of the day."

The proposal has yet to be introduced to the City Council; that is expected to happen in the coming weeks. Third Ward council member Pat Harris says that the proposal has many merits, but that he's waiting for a reaction from St. Paul Police Chief William Finney before endorsing it. "Our police officers are busy enough right now, and giving them another duty of being immigration officers potentially puts them in a bind from a public safety standpoint," Harris notes. "I'm all for homeland security and I'm all for a safer community, but our police officers need to do the job that we've sent them out to do and not what the federal government sends them out to do."

The Minneapolis City Council passed a similar measure in July by an 11-1 vote. Ninth Ward council member Gary Schiff, a co-sponsor of the ordinance, says that he became convinced of the necessity of such a measure after surveying various city departments and discovering that Minneapolis employees were demanding proof of immigration status from residents applying for business permits. "The City Council did not direct them to do that," he notes. "There was no reason to do it. That convinced me that there was a clear need for this policy. Absent such a policy, city departments would continue on their own to have erratic identification standards."

Furthermore, Schiff says that he became concerned that scarce police resources might be diverted from the department's primary mission: fighting crime. "If the federal government is serious about immigration law, then they should put the resources behind it to enforce it," he argues.

Similar measures have been passed in numerous other municipalities and states, including Baltimore, Detroit, Alaska, and Oregon. The movement is in response to federal measures enacted after the September 11 attacks, most notably the USA PATRIOT Act and the Homeland Security Act. "The federal bills implicitly demand that the local community do the enforcing," notes Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union. "They don't require it, but it's implicit. The theory is we simply get the local community to refrain from participating in these things and therefore, in a sense, these laws are crippled."

A proposal now before Congress would make these demands explicit. The Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act of 2003, or CLEAR Act, was introduced in the House of Representatives in July by Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood. It would authorize all state and local law-enforcement officers to enforce immigration laws. Speaking on the House floor earlier this year, Norwood declared that federal immigration agents simply don't have the resources to apprehend illegal immigrants, and that such people present a grave threat to America. "Some of them who have crossed this border may well be terrorists," Norwood warned.

But supporters of the St. Paul measure say such talk is simply ignorant fear-mongering. "Immigration is a federal issue, not a state issue," notes Samuelson. "The Constitution doesn't allow the states to set their own immigration policy. That's for the federal government to do."

St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly has so far refused to say whether he'll support such a measure. When the issue was raised earlier this month at a forum held to address issues of importance to the Latino community, Kelly told attendees that he'd get back to them in two weeks. Deputy Mayor Dennis Flaherty says that the proposal is being scrutinized by the city attorney's office and that the mayor is still undecided: "It will be a couple weeks before we're in a position to reach any kind of position on it."

Flaherty says that he's never received a complaint about city employees harassing residents over immigration matters, but he also concedes that people who may have had such experiences are not the most likely to contact City Hall. "I'm not dismissing their issue just because I'm not aware of problems," he says. "We're going to look at this very seriously."

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