House committee encourages greater cooperation on immigration enforcement

Kelsey Sheehy Contributor
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Securing the border and catching undocumented immigrants are tasks that fall on federal shoulders, but a House committee said Tuesday it is a load the Department of Homeland Security can’t carry alone.

Instead, the federal government should share those responsibilities with state and local agencies, House Homeland Security Committee members said.

“No matter what uniform they wear, the American people expect law enforcement officers to work together,” said Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, the committee’s ranking member.

What is the best way for agencies to share the load? It depends on who you ask.

Cooperation between state, local and federal agencies is “crucial,” in keeping El Paso, Texas one of the safest communities in the country, said Gomecindo Lopez, commander of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Special Operations Bureau.

But extending the partnership to include enforcing immigration laws would jeopardize that status, he said.

“It will undermine the trust and cooperation of our immigrant communities,” Lopez said. “To undermine that trust would be a critical mistake.”

Lopez said trust in the authorities is what differentiates El Paso from Ciudad Juarez, the city’s cross-border neighbor, which has the highest murder rate in Mexico, according to the U.S. State Department.

Coordinating resources and efforts across all levels of the government makes fiscal sense, said Committee Chairwoman Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican.

“We cannot afford to have wasteful and duplicative efforts,” Miller said. “The American people rightly demand that we stretch tax payer dollars to get the most bang for our buck.”

State and local agencies get involved in criminal immigration violations like drug smuggling or human trafficking, but day-to-day enforcement should be left to the experts, said David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“Immigration law is so complex,” Leopold said. “I think it’s a volatile mix when you add in state and local law enforcement.”

There is no one-size-fits-all answer on how to leverage local resources.

Programs likes 287g, which train local agencies to perform limited immigration enforcement tasks, are good away from the border, said Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, but are no use to him along Arizona’s southwest border.

What Dever would like to see is collaboration between federal and local authorities in developing programs for local agencies.

“For the federal government to sit down and say ‘Hey, we have this program, would you like to participate?’ How about ‘Would you like to participate in a discussion about what kind of program we need to develop,’” Dever said.

The best way for state and local authorities to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement is through information sharing programs like secure communities, Dever said.

With secure communities, local law enforcement agencies check fingerprints taken during booking against a DHS database to determine immigration status. If the local agencies lack electronic finger printing technology they have to send the paper records to the state agency to scan in and check.

The program will be nationwide by 2013, said ICE Deputy Director Kumar Kibble. It is currently active in 1,265 jurisdictions in 42 states.

While ICE said secure communities is simply an information sharing program, critics say it takes resources away from local agencies at a time when they are already spread thin.

Providing federal funding to reimburse overtime expenses would help calm these concerns, said Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin. His Alabama office already participates in secure communities.

The government provides no funding to local agencies that currently participate in the program.