Respond to this Article April 2006

Shift Work

Should policing illegal immigration fall to nurses and teachers?

By Douglas McGray

Just an hour from San Francisco, on the road to Fresno, a rancher has sheared a giant cross, and the words "Jesus Saves," into a grassy hillside. A little farther south, a National Rifle Association banner billows from a long truck bed, parked by the side of Route 99 until harvest time. Away from California's big cities and the cool Pacific coast lies a flat, fertile landscape that's politically more like Indiana than Marin County. Here, in California's Central Valley, U.S. citizens and illegal, undocumented immigrants have lived in a kind of awkward partnership for decades. As they do business now, the region's lucrative commercial farms (the foundation of an otherwise shaky economy) would shut down without undocumented labor. Yet the cultural impact of that huge undocumented workforce remains a sore point with conservative locals.

Pat Farmer, a police captain, drives his black-and-white squad car across South Fresno, surveying the neighborhood through dark wraparound sunglasses. He cruises past dilapidated bungalows packed with families who overflow into beat-up silver trailers; past a condemned house, behind a broken picket fence, where a Mexican methamphetamine ring used to operate; past a block of Chinatown bars where old, sunburned Mexican men in white cowboy hats linger outside. Most of these residents work hard and don't cause trouble, but many are also here illegally.

Cops like Farmer must strike a delicate balance in a neighborhood like this one, between enforcing the rules and alienating illegal residents (whom they are both legally and morally obligated to protect, and whose cooperation they need to keep the peace). For instance, undocumented workers cannot, by law, have drivers' licenses, and virtually none has insurance. So Fresno's cops spend a great deal of time busting illegal immigrants for traffic violations and impounding their cars. Every farm worker you talk to seems to have had a car impounded for driving without a license, many, more than once, and each incident brings fines and fees that can equal a month's salary--a huge blow. "They're running the gauntlet each time they're out on the road," Farmer says, not unsympathetically. But while many illegal workers feel targeted by traffic cops, it is significant what the police refuse to do: turn them in to federal immigration authorities.

"We don't enforce immigration laws," Farmer tells me firmly. "We care about behavior. It's not where you're from, it's what you're doing." And that is official: local ordinances bar Fresno cops from so much as making small talk about immigration status, a policy police veterans like Farmer strongly support. The department--which faces a growing gang problem, and the state's biggest meth trade, not to mention the usual stream of thefts and assaults every city police department can expect--simply lacks the resources, says Farmer, to deputize its cops as immigration officials. But resources, he explains, are only part of the problem. "Sometimes folks are here illegally, and they're the victim of a crime. We want them to call us," he says. "If someone is a witness, we want them to trust us." Farmer needed that trust just a month earlier, after a shooting outside a nearby convenience store. "There were numerous witnesses," he says, "a lot of folks who were probably illegal. It was critical that they talk to our detectives."

But procedures that make sense to cops on the beat may seem ridiculous to many citizens. Why shouldn't police--or teachers, or emergency workers, for that matter--lend overwhelmed immigration officials a hand? Federal agents arrested more than a million people trying to cross in 2004; still, the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States has grown by 23 percent during the first half of this decade, according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center study, and some half a million more take up residence each year.

Legislators in Washington have been modest about checking illegal immigration since the 1980s (a 1996 reform, which made border crossing more difficult, mostly encouraged undocumented workers to settle here with their families, instead of commuting back and forth for seasonal work). And no wonder: For every Republican agitator who talks about an "invasion" and gripes about pressing "1" for English, there is a big business lobbyist whispering that sub-minimum-wage workers are awfully good for the bottom line. For every liberal pressure group pushing reform on the grounds that illegal immigrants will forever be exploited immigrants, there is another that would prefer to just ease the stigma of "undocumented" status.

Until recently, most Americans lived in communities where few (if any) illegal immigrants settled. Conditions were ideal for a policy of willful inattention. But that's changing, as immigrants--legal and illegal--increasingly settle throughout the country. California's share of the country's estimated 10 million illegal residents is shrinking, as dozens of states from Virginia to Idaho see their undocumented populations explode. In a handful of these new immigration hubs, more than half of the foreign-born population is now undocumented.

Congress and the president have finally begun to talk about overhauling the slow, dysfunctional legal immigration system, which drives honest job seekers underground, and putting enforcement at the border that does more than just divert people into a lethal desert. But they have found no meaningful consensus on how to do it. The Republican House may agree to throw more money at the Department of Homeland Security or slap illegal immigrants with heavier penalties, but this is the legislative version of looking busy. Both President Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) have campaigned for an approach that mixes new options for immigrant laborers with beefed-up enforcement, but neither has made much headway.

As a result, state and community leaders are rushing into the void. Since last year, legislators in 21 states, from New York to Alabama, have debated dozens of bills designed to deputize public employees for a new kind of immigration fight. To them, it seems obvious that local cops should detain illegal immigrants for deportation. It seems pragmatic to encourage local emergency rooms to patch up anyone who is seriously ill or injured, but insist that they turn other undocumented immigrants away, and maybe even share patient data with immigration officials. Just about anyone who collects a city, county, or state paycheck could do a little immigration work on the side.

These scattered state and local efforts have even started to catch the attention of conservative lawmakers in Washington. In October, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) called on the Department of Homeland Security to train and fund community border patrols made up of local police and immigration enforcement hobbyists like the Minutemen. And at the end of January, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) proposed an immigration bill that would supersede local laws, like Fresno's, that keep police from checking the immigration status of people who come forward to report crimes or help an investigation.

Bills like Sensenbrenner's, combined with the efforts of local legislators around the country to press their own civil servants into the fight against illegal immigration, could produce a revolution in immigration enforcement. But they may also set off a revolt by the very cops, teachers, and welfare workers legislators seek to deputize. These workers feel, with a good deal of justification, that they can either do their jobs effectively, or act as immigration police--but not both.

Community policing

Last summer, I visited Fresno's Republican mayor, Alan Autry, a former Green Bay Packer and television actor. Tall and sunburned, with the thick features of an ex-jock and a vestigial drawl from his Louisiana childhood, Autry played guys named Whitey and Bubba on shows like "Hunter," "The Dukes of Hazzard," and "In the Heat of the Night." A few weeks before, he had made the national news by declaring immigration policy the focus of his second term in office. "Some will say the illegal immigration issue should not be included in a State of the City address," he began, rightly anticipating a controversy. "They will say the border is a federal issue, not a local issue. Well, the actual crossing of the border illegally may very well be a federal issue, but the consequences, all of them, that come after that are 100 percent local."

Autry looks fit for the role of an immigration hardliner ("big, ugly, white, and from the South," he deadpans.) But his motives for getting involved in the issue are more complicated than his lefty critics or his Minuteman fans assume. Local employers and middlemen prey on a workforce the region depends on, Autry told me. "We're having more and more instances of businesses working people for four weeks, not paying them, and then calling immigration," he said. Some employers literally work men to death: Just a few days earlier, a local laborer had died in the 108-degree heat, and farm workers gossiped about two other alleged deaths that failed to make the news. "How many anonymous bodies do we need to find in the orchards?" Autry asked. The undocumented make up nearly half of California's uninsured. In some of Fresno County's schools, upwards of a quarter of students may be undocumented, and many more are the children of undocumented parents. "We can't be a quality city without addressing this issue," he said.

Yet despite the visibility of illegal immigration in Fresno, Autry backs the local statute that prohibits cops like Farmer from reporting undocumented workers to the feds. "I don't believe we'll ever make a dent in the problem by approaching the symptoms," he said. Instead, he has tried to organize fellow mayors to lobby Congress for comprehensive immigration reform, including a guest-worker program.

Elsewhere in the country, however, state and local officials are taking a different approach. In the last three years, Arkansas, Alabama, Virginia, and Florida legislators all moved cops to the immigration beat, requiring them to check citizenship status for the feds, and even training immigration specialists to help do the job. Legislators in New York, South Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland debated similar bills, and the mayor of Danbury, Conn., called on his state to do the same (his office estimates that 20 percent of Danbury's residents today are undocumented).

State police in Alabama and Florida started small, training only a couple of dozen officers for immigration duty. But now, Florida is doubling those ranks. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry has pledged $10 million, 50 new immigration detectives, and National Guard training to help local deputies police the border--"not because it is the state's responsibility to control the federal border," he clarified, "but because the state of Texas cannot wait for the federal government." Officials in Orange County, Calif., have proposed training as many as 500 local officers to check the papers of anyone they suspect of a crime. And last fall, a Southern California assemblyman, Ray Haynes, campaigned for a ballot initiative that proposed the nation's first state border patrol, a brand new police force that would monitor the border and sweep the interior of the state for violators. "Bottom line," says Haynes, "the feds aren't doing the job."

In fact, local police are just the most obvious of an array of potential immigration enforcers, and handcuffs are just one approach to enforcement. Some communities have targeted undocumented residents with hassling campaigns. Danbury's mayor has ordered city building inspectors to count the cars in the neighborhoods where new immigrants congregate, inspect houses that look overcrowded, and write up fines. In Manassas, Va., local officials recently passed a housing ordinance limiting the members of any one household to a nuclear family and banning grandmas and cousins--a measure aimed directly at the city's sprawling immigrant population. (The measure was repealed in January, after criticism from civil rights groups.) And last year in the tiny New Hampshire town of New Ipswich, the sheriff charged a local undocumented worker with trespassing on public land, just for existing on American soil.

Other communities are more aggressive, building immigration enforcement into all kinds of government services. Legislators in Colorado and Alabama have proposed a mandatory citizenship check for all public services, except in cases of emergency. Federal law already requires proof of citizenship for the really expensive stuff, like Medicaid and welfare, or states have no choice but to make it universally available (public education through high school, urgent medical treatment, incarceration), so these proposals mostly build enforcement into less obvious programs: vaccinations for the poor, after-school tutoring, prenatal care, even hunting and fishing licenses. Florida and South Carolina have debated a bill to require undocumented immigrants to pay for any non-emergency hospital care in advance. Idaho lawmakers have proposed banning them from all county health services, unless the county agrees to deport patients once they are well, and pay the deportation bill. In Caldwell, Idaho, county officials have brought racketeering charges against businesses that hire undocumented laborers, an unprecedented take on organized crime laws. South Carolina legislators have actually proposed to arrest illegal immigrants, confiscate all their money and possessions, and throw them in state prison for five years.

Almost any public institution could be deputized. Some officials in Lowell, Mass., a diverse Boston suburb, want federal Department of Education permission to screen for illegal immigrants at the town's public vocational high school. Georgia, Kentucky, and New York have suggested barring undocumented immigrants from all state colleges, no matter how young they were when their parents brought them to the United States, and Virginia signed the idea into law. College "ought to be limited to the people who are not breaking the laws of this country," argued state delegate Jack Reid, who introduced the Virginia bill.

Then there are lawmakers who go even further--not only proposing to deny government services to illegal immigrants, but requiring that civil servants snitch on any they encounter, reporting them to federal immigration authorities. State legislators in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Maine have aimed to turn everyone from nurses and community-college professors to child-welfare workers and park rangers into the eyes and ears of federal immigration authorities. Arkansas and Tennessee lawmakers actually recommended charging local, county, and state employees with misdemeanors if they identify an illegal immigrant and fail to pass any intelligence they have to the feds--identical to the federal sentence for sneaking across the border. "Illegal immigrants have been given a safe haven in this state," the so-called Arkansas Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act bristles.

All of these measures carry the genes of California's landmark Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that would have denied the state's undocumented immigrants access to any institution with taxpayer funding. It required doctors and elementary school teachers to turn in any illegal immigrants they identified, not just to turn them away. And it passed, with 59 percent of voters behind it. The measure fell apart after the federal courts ruled portions of it unconstitutional. But as undocumented immigrants have spread out from California since the early 1990s, so have the ideas embodied by Prop. 187. In the last election, Arizona voters passed a near copy of California's initiative, tailored to avoid the original's run-in with the courts. A delegation of Colorado state legislators visited the initiative's authors in Arizona last fall, and promised to bring a version before Colorado voters in November.

"Pay now or pay later"

Many local lawmakers insist these measures will help. But overwhelmingly, if quietly, the nurses, professors, administrators, cops, and outreach workers that lawmakers seek to deputize resist the call. One by one, New York, Los Angeles, and an array of other cities have written policies like Fresno's, strictly forbidding police officers to inquire about immigration status. And last fall, when federal legislators demanded that hospitals collect two pages of immigration data from patients to access a $1-billion fund for uninsured care, doctors and hospital administrators, including the American Hospital Association and American Medical Association, revolted. These objections are mostly practical. Local immigration enforcement, they say, will damage communities, destroy lives, cost far more than supporters understand, and do little to stop illegal immigration.

The San Joaquin Health Center, 30 miles southwest of downtown Fresno, sits across the street from a seed warehouse, and a lot filled with aging farm machinery. There is a clinic just like it in many of the tiny, no-stoplight towns that appear without warning and disappear just as quickly in the vast, green orchards of the Central Valley. Every seat in the waiting room is full on the morning I visit. But it is usually this way. The clinic, small enough to pass for a house, has about 35,000 active patients.

Roughly half of those patients have at least a little health insurance, one doctor tells me, as he scribbles on a farm worker's chart. The rest have nothing, usually because they are undocumented. The clinic charges uninsured patients for services, on a sliding scale, but many never pay, and that is o.k., says the doctor. The organization manages to stay solvent with county, state, and federal grants.

This is just the sort of care that many state lawmakers seek to outlaw. And they are right about one thing: These doctors know hundreds, maybe thousands of undocumented immigrants in the community. "They'll be very open," says Rodrigo Dezubiria, a clinic doctor. "'I snuck across the border, I snuck across five times.'" (At the county hospital in Fresno, administrators are even more systematic; they have the immigration status of tens of thousands of area residents stored in a confidential patient database.) But turning those patients away, or reporting them to the feds? "It's a simple-minded thing to suggest," says Dezubiria.

A week before my visit, an undocumented farm worker came to the clinic for the first time with gangrene creeping all the way up to his knee. It was a straightforward case of diabetes. Preventative care--the kind of treatment many state proposals would reserve for citizens--would have been easy and cheap. Instead, Dezubiria had to rush him to the hospital where surgeons amputated his leg, and absorbed an astronomical bill. "Pay now or pay later," Dezubiria shrugs. The expensive choice left a man disabled for life.

Community workers across professions share strikingly similar views of the dysfunction that would spread if state laws pulled them, or their colleagues, into immigration work.

Sarah Reyes, director of Fresno's nonprofit food bank, explains that, as it is, welfare offices have a perennial problem getting enough undocumented immigrants to show up. We walk past row after row of Fig Newtons and Ritz Crackers, Caesar dressing and bananas. They don't qualify for food stamps, she explains, but their American-born kids do. First, though, everyone in the household faces a detailed interview and digital fingerprint scan. If word got out that the welfare office reported immigration violations, they would never reach those American kids--more than a million under age 6, nationally, according to a recent study by the nonprofit Urban Institute.

Many immigrant families are "mixed status"--made up of both legal and undocumented residents--explains Roland Smith, director of Fresno's Department of Housing and Urban Development office. "In public housing," he says, "they struggle with this all the time." Like his colleagues across the country, Smith campaigns to get people away from shady check-cashers and payday lenders and into banks (which accept a Mexican ID card), encourage personal savings, and think about home ownership, all good things for Fresno's poorest neighborhoods. If people in his position had to report undocumented immigrants, families would avoid them--including lots of legal immigrants--but undocumented family members would not leave the country. "We know that!" he says. "If people are willing to die in the desert to make a living for their families, geez, they'll do anything."

Fresno's health, welfare, and housing workers share the same fears as city cops like Pat Farmer: Having to act as de facto immigration officers will undermine their ability to do their regular jobs--difficult jobs that have to be done well. Countless municipal workers across the country feel the same way. The International Association of Police Chiefs (IAPC) came out firmly against any effort to force any local police officers around the country into immigration duty. "Many leaders in the law enforcement community have serious concerns about the chilling effect any measure of this nature would have on legal and illegal aliens reporting criminal activity or assisting police in criminal investigations," writes IAPC president Joseph Estey. "We don't have the time and the personnel to be immigration agents," agrees Sixto Molina, South Tucson, Arizona's police chief--no stranger to the issue. "Murderers, rapists, robbers, thieves, and drug dealers present a much bigger threat than any illegal immigrant."

Plus, pressure to go after illegal immigrants can lead officers down a slippery slope, as the state of Alabama found out when it assigned its cops to immigration duty. Of the undocumented residents Alabama police arrested during the first six months of their new assignment, 85 percent had committed no other crime. Encouraging cops to arrest people simply on suspicion of being illegal will almost certainly lead to legal immigrants being jailed until they can prove their legal status. And for what?

"We are all border towns now"

To many citizens, it makes no sense that thousands of illegal immigrants routinely come to the attention of public officials without consequences. Local lawmakers have tapped into that frustration, even encouraged it. Not only do these laws make it harder for civil servants to do their jobs, but even federal immigration officials are, at best, ambivalent about this kind of help.

As chief of the local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office, Brian Poulson is the Department of Homeland Security's senior immigration enforcer in central California, a post he has held since the 1990s, when his office was called the INS. Lawmakers may be dreaming up new ways to tip Poulson and his team off to undocumented immigrants among them, but Poulson says his office is barely equipped to keep up with criminals and absconders and monitor potential terrorist targets like pipelines and airports.

"There are 45,000 people locked up in my area," he says. He estimates about 13,000 of them are eligible for deportation--and the jails often release them anyway, without warning his agents, when they run out of beds. "We are overwhelmed by that alone." Besides, he says, "we already get a tremendous amount of information from callers." Snooping neighbors, jilted boyfriends and girlfriends, people looking for the last word in an argument: They call all day long. "We have to tell them to write it down and send it in," Poulson says, "or we'd be on the phone all day."

Not that some of his colleagues aren't tempted by the idea of an easy, immediate solution. "That non-common- sensical thinking is everywhere, even at the border patrol," Poulson admits. He recalls a fight in his office, back when it was the INS. Another agent, he remembers, said 'I'm going to write a memo to the chief of police that he's in violation of federal law, because he wrote a new policy saying they won't call the INS.' We looked at him, and said, are you crazy? You expect them to call us for every immigrant they come across? It will bury us."

"I think we've reached oversaturation," he says. "You could triple our staff, I'm not sure how much difference it would make."

There is a way to help, he says, and it doesn't involve deputizing half of the public payroll: Massively increase patrols on the border, and offer an efficient, rational guest-worker program that lets undocumented immigrants find legal work, and forces employers to pay a fair wage and some benefits.

Simplifying the legal immigration system at the same time would take further pressure off the border.

That is just a start. But it would mean Congress taking the initiative back from states and locals. Fresno's mayor, for one, would be thrilled. "The status quo has forced local governments into these little battles," Autry said--losing battles. These local schemes, he said, will do nothing but demonize undocumented residents. "I don't want them blamed for al Qaeda," he said, "or for lost jobs."

Of course, Congress will have to show sincere interest in the problem, enough to work out some deep differences before states get any further ahead of them. And that may mean risking the ire of voters in an election year. The Americans most passionate about immigration politics are unlikely to accept a practical compromise, and they will mobilize against any official who offends them--by, say, offering a chance at citizenship to undocumented workers who settled here long ago, or putting muscular enforcement at the border.

But an awkward issue for the reelection campaign is nothing to fear, compared with the dysfunction of a nationwide, piecemeal immigration system. No community will lie beyond its reach. "We are all border towns now," Poulson says wryly. "Even Washington, DC."

Douglas McGray is a California-based writer and a fellow at the New America Foundation.


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