Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Police worry about growing distrust among immigrants

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Montgomery County Police leaders are worried that enforcing federal civil detainers for people wanted on immigration violations has hurt longstanding efforts to build trust within the immigrant community.

For years, county police have told the community that they are not interested in anyone’s immigration status because they want people to report crimes.

That trust has recently taken a hit.

Sister Cathy McConnell of St. Camillus Catholic Church in Silver Spring, who works with immigrants, called the loss of trust in the police ‘‘a very sad turn of events.”

‘‘A whole class of people are going to be driven underground and we’re all going to pay,” she said. ‘‘People do crazy things out of fear.”

While the police department has not changed its policy on ignoring the immigration status of crime victims and witnesses, police did pick up 65 people last year after discovering during routine traffic stops that they were wanted for failing to appear at immigration hearings. The police did not track the number of incidents before last year and have not compiled how many immigration detainers have been served so far this year.

Since 2003, immigration officials have entered the names of people wanted on civil detainers into the National Crime Information Center’s database along with people wanted on criminal arrest warrants. When police run a routine check for warrants after a traffic stop, the NCIC database is searched and the civil detainers may be listed.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs said the agency is simply enforcing immigration laws.

‘‘They’re fugitives,” she said. ‘‘They might be driving around in traffic, but they’re a fugitive. It’s just like any other fugitive. You have a traffic stop, you find someone is wanted and you take them into custody.”

That runs counter to the approach most local police departments, including Montgomery County, have had of not enforcing immigration laws unless the person had committed a crime.

‘‘If I run somebody and we have a [detainer] for their arrest, what am I going to do?” Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger said. ‘‘Most local police chiefs aren’t happy about this. ... The police department is stuck between a rock and hard place with these hits.”

Other police departments, such as the Maryland State Police and the Fairfax County (Va.) Police, say they face situations similar to Montgomery’s.

‘‘It’s a tough thing to resolve,” said Maryland State Police spokesman Sgt. Arthur Betts. ‘‘How many people might not report a crime because of fear of deportation?”

Police should ignore the federal detainers, said Kim Propeack, director of community action at immigrant advocacy group Casa of Maryland in Silver Spring. ‘‘These are people who haven’t broken any laws other than getting a traffic ticket, and they’re being arrested and taken to jail,” she said.

Manger said it is not that simple: Police cannot ‘‘start picking and choosing what laws they’re going to enforce when there is a lawful detainer out on somebody.”

But while county police policy has not changed on ignoring the immigration status of crime victims and witnesses, the perception among immigrant communities is that the policy has changed. ‘‘It is fueling this urban legend that things have changed, and it hasn’t,” Manger acknowledged.

The issue dominated a community meeting two weeks ago in Takoma Park attended by a dozen Latino women to discuss personal safety with county Police Officer III Luis Hurtado, a Hispanic liaison officer. The women brought up rumors of police searching for illegal immigrants, even pulling them off buses.

‘‘People are not cooperating because we’re scared,” said Mayra Mejilla, 39, of Wheaton, who helps organize the women’s Saturday morning meetings in Takoma Park, which provide support for the immigrant women.

David Baker, a crime prevention specialist with the county police’s Community Outreach Section, acknowledged their concerns.

‘‘We’ve broken our word — it doesn’t matter whether that’s accurate or not,” Baker said at a March 15 meeting with police, school and community representatives in Gaithersburg. ‘‘This is going to be the most critical issue to the community for the next year.”

‘‘The ripple effect is just massive,” said Christy Swanson, Casa of Maryland’s director of services, who attended the meeting. ‘‘We as an institution cannot overstate the seriousness of this issue.”

Girls are now refusing to report rapes for fear they’ll be deported if they come forward, said Maria Garcia, an ESOL coordinator for Montgomery County Public Schools, who also attended the meeting. ‘‘More than ever, since last year I’m seeing groups of students that are scared.”

The police department is doing what it can to ease the immigrant community’s fears, said Deputy Police Chief John A. King. It is reviewing whether some of the routine questions asked of crime victims and witnesses are fanning that fear.

‘‘We want to make sure how we ask the questions explains to the public why we’re asking the questions so they know we’re not inquiring into their immigration status, which can cause them some anxiety,” King said.

‘‘If there were an easy answer, every police department in the country wouldn’t be going through what we are going through,” Manger said at the March 15 meeting in Gaithersburg. ‘‘We’ve been building community trust and trying not to let immigration issues destroy that trust. ... The last thing we want is for more crimes to go unreported and for more people not to come to the police.”