The Obstacles to Cooperation
When individuals who are out of legal immigration status (either due to overstaying a visa or never obtaining one) are confronted with a crime or other emergency, they have a difficult decision to make. Do they notify law enforcement personnel and risk their immigration status being discovered, or do they keep quiet, potentially allowing the crime or emergency to go unreported?
Because there is a large population of immigrants without visa status living in the United States (the government estimates approximately 10.8 million as of January 2010), the risk that this segment of the population might have a reticence to report crimes and emergencies should concern us all. Cooperation and communication between the community and law enforcement is vital to maintaining safety. But what assurances can we utilize to encourage the undocumented to cooperate in this fight against crime?
The Federal Government's Solution
In 2000, Congress acted to create the U visa. Put simply, a U visa grants temporary immigration status to certain crime victims if they are helpful to the law enforcement investigation. After having the U visa for 3 years, the victim can apply for possible permanent resident status. This opportunity to gain legal immigration status is intended to give victims who are out of status a special reason to report the crime that was committed against them.
A few individual states have pursued more direct strategies to obtain this vital cooperation. The Oregon legislature passed a state law in 1987 which prohibits state law enforcement agencies from spending time and money apprehending those whose only violation of the law is immigration-related. Since that time Alaska and Montana have followed suit.
Former Maine governor John Baldacci signed an executive order in 2004 which prohibited state officials from inquiring about someone's immigration status unless a crime was being investigated. In January of this year, however, current Maine governor Paul LePage promptly reversed that order just after taking office. In New Mexico, a January 2011 executive order now directs law enforcement officers to inquire about the immigration status of criminal suspects, but not that of "crime victims, witnesses, or others who call or approach law enforcement seeking assistance or reporting a crime." These states hope that these measures will effectively clarify the scope of police investigation to assure the undocumented that they are not putting themselves at risk by cooperating with a criminal investigation.
Solutions at the Local Level
Many individual cities attempt to facilitate strong community cooperation with the police through a variety of immigration-related city ordinances. Here in the Twin Cities, both Minneapolis and St. Paul have city ordinances instructing law enforcement officers how to deal with immigration status. The key sentence in each ordinance reads:
Public safety officials may not undertake any law enforcement action for the purpose* of detecting the presence of undocumented persons, or to verify immigration status, including but not limited to questioning any person or persons about their immigration status.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, all employees of the police department, fire department, and the criminal division of the city attorney’s office are subject to this restriction and the exceptions to it are few. Hopefully, these measures will be able to demonstrate the positive impact they have on community safety, encouraging all levels of government to expand their use. * The St. Paul ordinance states "sole purpose."