What Law Enforcement Officers Need to Know About Immigration Laws
By Leischen Stelter
As a law enforcement officer, you pull over a man for speeding. He speaks no English. He hands you a Mexican passport. What do you do? What legal steps and obligations do you have when it comes to this man’s immigration status? What agency do you call? What resources do you have at your disposal?
These are just some of the questions many law enforcement officers ask when they encounter an immigration issue, says Attorney Lisa Pannone. Pannone spent 15 years working as a government attorney, three of which were spent as a trial attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As an ICE attorney, Pannone represented the government in removing/deporting thousands of legal and illegal immigrants. Currently, she is a professor at American Military University, teaching immigration law in the legal studies Master’s program. As it so happens, Pannone also lives in Arizona—the hotbed of the immigration debate.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court mostly rejected Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, finding that Arizona could not authorize the state and local police to enforce immigration laws more strictly than federal policy allowed. However, the court did let stand one of the most controversial parts of the law, which allowed police to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws if “reasonable suspicion” existed, according this CNN article.
Police are not politicians and they’re not lawyers and they can’t be expected to understand the nuances of these laws, says Pannone. Immigration laws are complex and confusing and difficult even for attorneys to understand. But, the fact is, police are often the ones on the frontlines of immigration battles. What should officers know about immigration law to help them do their jobs?
The first step, says Pannone, is for officers to arm themselves with resources and information about who to contact before they’re faced with an immigration issue. One of the first questions to ask is whether or not your state has entered into a memorandum of agreement with ICE for the 287(g) partnership program. (Here’s the official DHS fact sheet on 287(g) for your reference). The 287(g) program allows local agencies to cross-train some of their officers as ICE agents. The officers are then allowed to enforce federal immigration law under ICE’s supervision, essentially providing more manpower and resources to address immigration issues.
However, if your state doesn’t have a MOA with ICE (many states, such as Arizona have lost some of their powers under this program and other states like Virginia have been outright denied authorization), the best course of action is to arm yourself with resources.
“Know who to contact and who your local ICE agent is,” says Pannone. “Know who to report immigration information to.” Police need to make the effort to reach out to and meet with the ICE agent responsible for their region. She recommends officers spend a day learning what ICE agents do and what documentation they’re looking for. At a bare minimum, she says, all police should know who to call with immigration questions.
It sounds like a simple solution, but Pannone says few police reach out ICE agents and vice versa. “They’re not reaching out to each other because they’re all overwhelmed and overburdened with responsibilities,” she said. “But police officers need to know their point of contact and meet those officials face-to-face so they know who to call if they encounter an immigration issue,” she says.