Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

When Should APD Call Immigration Officials?

By T.J. Wilham
Copyright 2007 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Albuquerque police officer Ron Olivas has never called federal immigration officers in seven years patrolling the city.
    Officer Ben Baker has called once in his 10-year law enforcement career.
    And APD spokesman John Walsh has called twice in 22 years.
    But in recent weeks, determining when cops should call federal immigration officers has become a hotly debated topic among elected officials, community leaders and the public.
    For example:
  • Albuquerque police issued a policy for its officers, and then was forced to reissue it after a flood of complaints over just what it meant.
  • Republican City Councilor Brad Winter has drafted a resolution clarifying a previous one he voted for in 2001 that declared Albuquerque "immigrant friendly."
  • And the Republican Party has made thousands of phone calls accusing Mayor Martin Chávez of making Albuquerque a haven for criminals and urging people to call City Hall.
        Meanwhile, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency checks the immigration status of all those booked into the West Side jail, whether Albuquerque police calls them or not.
        So what's the point?
        "It's a very hot issue right now," Police Chief Ray Schultz said in a recent interview. "It's a very confusing issue."
        The confusion started last month when an APD policy was "leaked to the media" that said, "Officers shall not inquire about or seek proof of a person's immigration status even if an arrest is made for non-immigration criminal violation."
        Schultz said the policy was issued as the result of a settlement stemming from a May 2005 lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
        The lawsuit alleged that the police and Albuquerque Public Schools violated the civil rights of three high school students by seizing and detaining them at Del Norte High School until immigration officials could question them.
        Under the settlement, APD agreed to develop a policy that was in line with a 2001 resolution that was unanimously passed by the council.
        Winter, who was council president at the time, said the 2001 ordinance was passed to protect witnesses and victims of crime. It was not written to protect those arrested, as he claims Chávez is trying to do with the new policy.
        "The intent was never to protect individuals who are in custody for crimes," he said.
        Schultz said he realized officers didn't understand the new policy after some complained to news reporters that the policy meant they could never check someone's immigration status.
        Within a few days, a reworded policy was distributed that said, "Officers shall not inquire about or seek proof of a person's immigration status, unless the person is in custody or is a suspect in a criminal investigation for a nonimmigration criminal violation and the immigration status of the person or suspect is pertinent to the criminal investigation."
        The Republican Party and Winter interpret that to mean officers can't call immigration officials. So Winter drafted a resolution that would allow officers to call immigration officials whenever they make an arrest.
        Republicans have started a campaign targeting Chávez in which they urge residents to call the mayor to voice their displeasure.
        But in the end, "we all agree," Schultz said. "Our officers can call immigration when they make an arrest."
        Under the current policy, officers have discretion to call immigration officials when they arrest someone if their immigration status is pertinent to the investigation, Schultz said.
        For example, he said, if someone is arrested for stealing a car, officers can check the suspect's immigration status if they believe the suspect is a flight risk, discover the suspect was born outside the U.S. or if the person has no ties to the community.
        Officers can't call "just because someone is Hispanic," Schultz said. "We want officers to have an articulate reason to call. We don't want them to run them just because of their last name.
        "We want the officers to decide when it is appropriate."
        If an officer doesn't know if it's appropriate to call INS, "(the officer) can always call a supervisor," Schultz said.
        Olivas said most cops don't want a policy that restricts them.
        "On a day-to-day (basis), we don't have a clue what we might run into, what we have to do, and what resource we need," he said. "Right now there is a lot of political turmoil over our heads. Speaking for the cops, we just want to have all of the resources available to us to keep the public safe."
        Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said agents regularly obtain a list from the jail of all those arrested who are foreign born. Agents check the inmates' immigration status and place an "immigration hold" on anyone in the country illegally.
        Those inmates are held until their cases are adjudicated.