- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told lawmakers yesterday that he was open to the controversial idea of using state and local police officers to help enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

During a Senate hearing, several lawmakers raised the issue of additional resources for immigration enforcement, especially in light of the proposal from President Bush for a guest-worker program.

“If there are no new resources in the budget to implement the president’s proposal, the implementation … would create incredible stresses on an already overly stressed … system,” said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

“We’re going to need substantial resources to enforce it,” Mr. Ridge acknowledged.

Officials and other supporters of the president’s proposal have said that one of the reasons for regularizing undocumented workers is to make it easier to enforce immigration laws — currently overwhelmed by an estimated 10 million people living illegally in the United States.

Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, said rather than hiring more federal agents, the administration should use local law-enforcement personnel to do the job. He said that federal agencies had proved “relatively inadequate” at enforcing immigration laws and that it would be more cost effective to use local police.

“I would suggest to you,” he said to the secretary, “that you review your idea of hiring more agents and you concentrate on cooperative partnerships with local law enforcement, maybe with some assisted training … that’s where the rubber really hits the road on a daily basis.”

Mr. Ridge said the department has had mixed experiences working with state governments on the issue, “Part of the reason may be philosophical; others may be fiscal.” But he agreed that, “you’ve got 650,000 men and women in local law enforcement that should be viewed as a potential asset and resource in enforcing the new law, whatever it might be.”

Bills in the House and Senate would give state and local law-enforcement officials the power to investigate, apprehend or remove noncitizens who are illegally in the United States.

The measures also include financial penalties for states that do not enact legislation within two years to allow the enforcement by local authorities of federal immigration law. They also provide for state and local governments to be reimbursed for some of the costs involved in detaining illegal immigrants.

Critics and supporters of the bills agreed that a move by officials to support them could be viewed as a counterpart or quid pro quo to the president’s reform proposals.

“It would be a public-policy nightmare to make police officers into ad hoc immigration agents,” Marshall Fitz of the American Immigration Lawyers Association said. “The chilling effect it would have on crime reporting by victims and witnesses from immigrant communities would be disastrous for law enforcement, and the fiscal implications on cash-starved local police departments don’t bear thinking about.”

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