WASHINGTON — Frustrated with ineffective immigration enforcement and often under considerable political pressure, a growing number of states, counties and cities are requiring their law officers to help detect and deport illegal immigrants rather than rely on federal agents.
Yet as more law enforcement agencies sign up for immigration training, local officers are divided over whether their participation significantly reduces local crime or illegal immigration. Many of the jurisdictions forgo the practice, creating a patchwork of different policies across the nation.
"This is a national problem that is now being handled in a variety of ways at the local level simply because we're not getting good guidance out of Washington," said Sheriff Mark Luttrell, who oversees a Tennessee county that surrounds Memphis. "There is still a great deal of confusion over the best way to tackle immigration."
Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement say that the local efforts prevent crime and have helped detect 32,000 illegal immigrants who otherwise may have remained in the country.
But local officers who choose not to participate say they want to avoid becoming de facto immigration agents when their better-resourced federal counterparts have yet to stem the tide of illegal immigrants coming into the country.
With violent crime rising in cities across the nation, many police chiefs question whether their resources are better spent preventing and solving local crime.
"Taking a patrol officer off the street to book someone who is here because of all the failures of the federal system is not a priority of big-city law enforcement," said Thomas Frazier, the executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of police chiefs from the 64 largest police departments in the United States and Canada.
"It makes a couple of assumptions that aren't always true: that the illegal immigrants you arrest are a threat to public safety, that their removal will make your community safer and that you have nothing better to do."
In the run-up to the presidential primaries, candidates from both parties have clashed over "sanctuary cities," which bar police officers from assisting immigration authorities.
But a more pressing question for many local law enforcement agencies isn't whether they should cooperate with federal agents, but whether they should do the work themselves.
About 4,000 local and state prisons already send the names of criminal suspects to ICE to be checked for immigration violations.
But local officers routinely complain that when they send the names, ICE agents either fail to check them all in their databases or refuse to pick up the immigrants because of a lack of resources.
As a result, more local agencies have decided to train their officers to perform the checks themselves as part of ICE's 287 g program. ICE provides local officers with access to an agency immigration database and trains them on identifying illegal immigrants and ordering deportations with the agency's approval.
In less than a year, the number of local law enforcement agencies that asked for ICE's training to detect illegal immigrants increased from eight to 34, with more than 80 agencies on the waiting list. So far, ICE has trained almost 600 local officers.
In Nashville, Sheriff Daron Hall added illegal immigration to his list of responsibilities earlier this year after high-profile arrests of immigrants sparked outrage in his central Tennessee county.
In one of the most troubling cases, Hall discovered that his deputies had jailed an illegal immigrant 13 times, including six times for drunken-driving charges. Before releasing the man, the deputies alerted ICE agents to make sure he wasn't an illegal immigrant, Hall said.
Temple Black, an ICE spokesman for Tennessee, said the agency received five inquiries from Hall's department about the suspect, but the name didn't match any illegal immigrant in its database.
Black said his agency told Hall's deputies to follow up if they had any additional information, but "none was provided."
But Hall said agents realized the suspect was in the country illegally only after his 14th arrest after killing a couple in a drunken-driving collision.
"Had they told us at the time, we would have been able to remove him from the country and potentially could have prevented that accident from ever happening," Hall said.
Sheriff Luttrell of Memphis considered following Hall's lead in joining the ICE program, but he immediately heard from nervous Hispanic residents who worried about ethnic profiling.
Facing limited resources, a spiking crime rate and a relatively small foreign-born prisoner population, Luttrell decided against joining the program. Instead, his deputies rely on ICE agents to screen their inmates.
Local officers who join the program face other difficult questions. Should suspects arrested on misdemeanor charges be screened along with felons? When do police officers perform the check?
"Almost everyone agrees that if a person violates the law, then what should naturally follow is an immigration check," Frazier said. "The question is: Do you stop a car for running a red light, walk up to the car and ask six young Hispanic men their legal status?"
Fueling the debate, local law enforcement agencies that perform the most aggressive screening are mostly detecting illegal immigrants who were arrested for misdemeanors. In some regions, people arrested on minor charges such as driving without licenses or public intoxication are checked along with murder and rape suspects.
In one of the most controversial versions of the program, Sheriff Joe Arpaio encourages his deputies in Maricopa County, Arizona, to patrol areas where illegal immigrants are known to congregate, including churches.
His tactics have irritated many of his counterparts in the state, prompting them to accuse him of grandstanding.
Arpaio brushes off the criticism, crediting his deputies' immigration work for reducing crime and encouraging illegal immigrants to stay clear of his state.
"Anyone in law enforcement who says that illegal immigrants aren't the source of crimes is either disconnected from reality or pandering to special-interest groups," said Arpaio, who received training for 160 of his deputies.
Few other participants credit the program for reducing crime.
"I've been in law enforcement for 32 years, and I can't tell you if there's ever been one significant event or issue that impacts crime," said Toussaint Summers Jr., the police chief in Herndon, Va.
Summers said his officers have noticed that federal agents are more likely to deport immigrants from the city since his department joined the ICE program earlier this year.
Better cooperation, however, doesn't always guarantee that the immigrants will be deported.
In Irving, Texas, police don't do the screening but initiated a more aggressive ICE referral system in April. Recently, they were surprised to receive new ICE guidelines that encouraged officers not to turn over immigrants who had been arrested for certain misdemeanors, including open-container and some traffic violations. Local officials estimated that referrals would drop by 60 percent.
ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said federal agents would continue to consider taking such cases when they could, but he added, "We're simply trying to prioritize."
Several law enforcement participants acknowledged that most of the illegal immigrants they detect have been arrested on misdemeanors. Rocha said his agency doesn't track local arrests according to type of crime.
Law enforcement officials maintain that they can't afford to look the other way when illegal immigrants commit even minor crimes while eluding federal agents.
"We have to enforce the law," Hall said. "We can't afford to wait for something more serious to happen."
Immigration advocates say Hispanics feel singled out for scrutiny. In Nashville, where police can ticket or arrest drivers who lack licenses, officers arrested 75 percent of Hispanics driving without licenses vs. 25 percent of Caucasians, according to Nashville's Metro Criminal Justice Planning Unit.
Don Aaron, a Nashville police department spokesman, said Hispanics were more likely to be arrested for driving without licenses because they're less likely to carry other forms of identification that would give officers the option of issuing citations. Nashville police aren't encouraged to look for immigration violations and leave the screening to Hall's deputies, he said.
Nashville lawyer Sean Lewis, who has represented dozens of immigrants arrested during traffic stops in the last several months, said he believes some officers are singling out Hispanic drivers.
One of his clients, Jose Quintero, was pulled over earlier this year after an officer saw him leave a restaurant. Although the officer claimed in his report that he pulled Quintero over for expired tags, Lewis discovered that the tags were up-to-date.
The officer cited Quintero for driving without a license and arrested him, although he could have only ticketed him. Once Quintero was brought in, Hall's deputies discovered that he was an illegal immigrant.
Aaron said the department believes the officer "acted in good faith" when he stopped Quintero.
Stephen Fotopulos, the policy director for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said the arrest demonstrates that the sheriff's program is targeting the wrong people.
"We're supposed to be making the community safer," he said. "But what we're doing instead is casting the net so far that we're flooding the system with civil immigration violators who are driving to work without a license."