Crackdown On Illegal Immigration Spurs Debate

Crackdown on illegal immigrants spurs debate

By Matthew Defour
FRI., FEB 15, 2008 – 11:58 PM


A federal crackdown on illegal immigrants is reverberating in local jails and law enforcement agencies across Wisconsin.

While many local police chiefs and sheriffs are leery about entanglement in the politically charged problem of immigration control, some are embracing the tough new federal effort and even profiting from it.

Dodge and Kenosha counties are pulling in millions of federal dollars each year to hold growing numbers of immigrants facing deportation, mostly to Mexico or other Latin American nations.

In Dane County, sheriff 's officials have said they 'll review their policy of notifying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about undocumented inmates.

An outcry from the local Hispanic community about the practice has drawn attention to the issue, but Sheriff Dave Mahoney isn 't convinced change is needed.

In the last year, at least two Wisconsin sheriff 's departments have considered participating in a federal program that gives local law enforcement officers the authority to enforce federal immigration law, though they both ultimately rejected the idea.

The northward movement of immigrants into the U.S. has sparked years of debate. In 2006, Congress failed to pass any comprehensive reform of federal law.

Many questions remain about how to respond to the migration, including disagreement over how local law enforcement should be involved.

Civil violation

Civil liberties advocates say local authorities should not assist federal enforcement of immigration law.

Living in the U.S. illegally is a civil violation, often overstaying a visa. It 's not a criminal act, noted Karyn Rotker, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.

“If the sheriff 's office is directly participating, what message does that send to the community? ” Rotker said. “You end up hurting community policing efforts because fear develops in the community. ”

Others, such as U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Brookfield, who introduced controversial immigration reform legislation in 2005, see local authorities as critical to the enforcement of immigration law, his chief of staff Tom Schreibel said. The Sensenbrenner bill would have made unlawful residence in the country a crime and required more cooperation between federal and local law enforcement in deporting convicts.

“From the get-go it would always be nice to have local law enforcement involved in the system, ” Schreibel said. “If there 's not the cooperation then how the heck do the feds know that Jefferson County or Dane County have a prisoner in custody that has a violation of citizenship? ”

No law requires local police to report suspected illegal immigrants, and because immigration is a federal matter, local police can 't arrest someone simply because they are in this country illegally.

In Dane County, jail inmates are reported to the federal government if they don 't have documentation to prove their legal status in this country.

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen recently said his office was considering participation in a federal program that would involve the state Justice Department more directly in enforcing immigration laws.

The Republican attorney general also has offered to be a liaison between local authorities and the federal government.

He has recommended that local law enforcement check the immigration status of anyone booked into jail and report suspected illegal immigrants. That 's standard practice in most lockups around the state, though some use their own discretion in certain cases, Van Hollen spokesman Kevin St. John said.

“As I travel throughout Wisconsin, ” Van Hollen said in a press release, “perhaps no single issue has come up as often as illegal immigration. The public has a lot of questions about what local law enforcement can do about illegal aliens. Law enforcement, too, has questions. ”

Enforcement initiatives

After Congress failed to make any comprehensive reform of existing laws, President Bush last year issued a list of initiatives to step up enforcement efforts within existing federal law, including more money for the immigration agency and an emphasis on courting cooperation on the local level.

“We are focusing our efforts on identifying and removing from this country criminal aliens who are serving time in our jails and prisons, ” Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said. “When you 're talking about an estimated 12 million illegal aliens, where better to start than those that are incarcerated? ”

That 's been a boon for jails in Dodge and Kenosha counties. Detainees are picked up from dozens of other counties, and held for deportation hearings in Chicago and Milwaukee.

Dodge County 's contracts with the federal government and other counties raked in more than $5 million last year, according to deputy jail administrator Tom Polsin.

Dodge County has housed as many as 340 inmates a day from other jurisdictions in its 358-bed facility, built in 2000. About half of those are typically illegal immigrants.

Kenosha County expects to raise $5.5 million in 2008 from holding federal inmates. A few weeks ago, 120 out of 195 federal inmates being held were illegal immigrants. The county recently added 120 beds to the jail, which can be financed by dollars received for holding federal inmates while the county 's own jail population grows into the space over the next several years, Sheriff David Beth said.

“I think our local people are thrilled that we have taken federal inmates in because it subsidizes the local tax levy, ” Beth said.

Policy questioned

Immigrant rights advocates, however, question the policy, especially as more low-level offenders are facing deportation.

“I think it 's immoral to do that just for money, ” said Peter Munoz, executive director of Centro Hispano, a Dane County advocacy group.

As the number of immigration detainees has increased, more may be deported before they receive legal assistance from nonprofit organizations with limited resources, said Tara Tidwell Cullen, a spokeswoman for the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago.

“We 've encountered a lot of people who have no gang history, no criminal history, or if they did, it was over a decade ago, ” Tidwell Cullen said. “They are working, have a family and are involved with their church, but somehow end up on this list of what ICE is calling dangerous gang criminals. ”

When asked about the objections, Kenosha County 's Beth added: “We really aren 't the policymakers for who are here. We are a warehouse for the people who are here. ”

Program rejected

Other attempts by the federal government to get local help have been less fruitful.

Brown County recently considered participating in the so-called 287(g) program, which trains local officers to enforce federal immigration law. But Sheriff Dennis Kocken concluded that the costs outweighed the benefits.

Waukesha County considered the same program last year, but backed out after Sheriff Daniel Trewicki determined the process was too complicated and would involve a regional role in immigration enforcement.

'Fear factor'

In Dane County, Mahoney said he isn 't interested in the 287(g) program because he doesn 't have enough deputies for his own programs.

As for whether Dane County should continue to notify ICE about inmates who are illegal immigrants, a public information meeting is scheduled for Feb. 25 at 5:30 p.m. in the City-County Building, 210 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to discuss the topic, said Paul Rusk, chairman of the county 's public protection and judiciary committee.

Mahoney said his staff is reviewing data that shows an increase in the number of inmates his jail is holding for possible deportation.

“At this point I 'm not changing my policy because I don 't think the wheels are coming off the wagon, ” Mahoney said. “I think there 's a lot of fear and misconception out in the community either motivated by individuals with a private agenda or just the fear factor. ”