The Costs of Turning Municipal Police into Immigration Enforcers

On Wednesday September 7, 2012 a federal judge upheld the provision of the Arizona law that authorizes police to ask subjects for documentation on their immigration status when stopping them for other reasons.  The “show me your papers” provision survived the US Supreme Court decision earlier this year that overturned most of the — to my mind — cynically named Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (introduced as Arizona Senate Bill 1070 and thus often referred to simply as Arizona SB 1070)

First: a quiz.  Illegal immigration into the US is

A. increasing.

B. stabilizing.

C. decreasing.

The answer appears to be B, with a dash of C, according to Department of Homeland Security figures cited by the NY Times of March 24, 2012.

“About 11.5 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States in January 2011, a figure essentially unchanged from the 11.6 million in 2010, according to the latest estimates by the Department of Homeland Security, which were based on 2010 census figures. Georgia saw the greatest increase between 2000 and 2011, with the number of illegal immigrants there increasing by 95 percent to 440,000. The number of illegal immigrants in the country peaked in 2007 at 11.8 million, the demographers found, and has been declining.”

The Pew Trusts Hispanic Center announced on April 23, 2012 that net migration from Mexico to the United States had stopped and possibly even reversed. The center noted that from 2005 to 2010, about 1.4 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States, and about 1.4 million Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children moved from the United States to Mexico.

The Pew researchers estimate these states to have seen the largest declines in unauthorized immigrant population in 2008 and 2009:

  1. Florida: 675,000 illegal residents, down by 375,000.
  2. New York: 650,000 illegal residents, down by 150,000.
  3. Arizona: 375,000 illegal residents, down by 100,000.
  4. New Jersey: 475,000 illegal residents, down by 100,000.
  5. California: 2,550,000 illegal residents, down by 100,000.

By number of illegal residents per 100,000 population, the top 5 are California, Arizona, New Jersey, Florida, New York.

The data suggest that something is working in the federal government’s overall strategy on the US’s southern border, the point of entry from the vast majority of people entering the US illegally.  Despite this obvious progress, fears about illegal immigration in several states continue to drive policy there and attacks on individuals.  It has always been thus.

In earlier posts this blog cited the late, great historian Oscar Handlin who started out to study the impact of immigration on the history of the US only to discover that the story of immigration IS the history of the US.  I believe the only waves of immigrants who received a warm welcome were the first English religious seekers in what became Salem, Plymouth and Boston, MA and Spanish conquerors in what is now Central and South America, much to the later horror and chagrin especially of the indigenous Algonquian and Incan societies.  Every other group met official as well as social hostility and mistreatment along a spectrum of experiences, from enslavement to discrimination. So people in states who believe themselves impacted, for the worse and disproportionately, by illegal immigration should pause and take a deep breath.  They and the people entering Arizona and other states are part of larger historical forces.  As a nation we need to support one another toward fashioning the most effective and compassionate policy we can to manage immigration.

The Legitimacy Cost

What does it cost us to turn municipal police into state security agents?

The first cost is in legitimacy.  These law transform the police.  They are no longer community-based problem-solvers authorized by law to uphold law and protect everyone without fear or favor.  For people who LOOK LIKE IMMIGRANTS the police are to be avoided, dodged and feared.  I capitalize the three words above because anyone could be an immigrant in the US.  In my home state of Massachusetts even the poor Wampanoags, Passamaquoddy’s and other Native Americans can be mistaken for Latin or other ethnicity. And pass such a law in Mass. and a cop could spend her career asking for papers in Boston’s North End.

The larger cost to legitimacy is how the new laws distort and subvert the police mission.  Everybody knows it’s not people from Galway and Palermo the cops will be told to prioritize but those from Mexico, El Salvador, etc.

I don’ t think we an afford this moral cost.  It could make us bankrupt.

The Opportunity Cost

While police are forced to dedicate scarce resources to this new and perilous purpose of serving the state as security apparatchiks, what are they not doing?  What is the community losing?  What problems go unaddressed?  What actual criminogenic forces are neglected in favor of chasing around people who LOOK LIKE IMMIGRANTS?

History teaches us that predators who are immigrants prey on their own.  That’s certainly true in the first generation and seems to hold true over time.  Wherever charity should begin serious crime always begins at home. While organized crime keeps the 95% of immigrant folks in terror and subjugation, the police response is to chase down the same innocent people to “show us your papers.”

Police in the US are by a large measure better than these policies.  Police sensibilities are more refined and decent than those of the people who draft and pass these shameful laws.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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