Friday, August 24, 2007

N.J. Officers to Take More Note of Immigration Status

Police officers in New Jersey must now notify immigration officials about any undocumented person who is arrested in connection with an indictable crime, under a directive issued Wednesday by Attorney General Anne Milgram.

The need for “a uniform state policy on notification” to immigration authorities became evident after a man identified as being in the country illegally was charged in a recent triple homicide in Newark, Milgram said during a news conference.

“Some counties and local police departments do it all the time, some sometimes do it, and some never,” she said. That changes “effective immediately,” Milgram said.

Milgram emphasized that the directive isn’t tantamount to a crackdown on illegal immigration. It also prohibits law enforcement authorities from inquiring about the immigration status of crime victims and witnesses, she said, adding that her office will monitor how police implement it.

Several local police officials said they’d have to review the directive before commenting. “If it’s an attorney general guideline, we’ll certainly follow it to the letter of the law, as we do with other attorney general guidelines,” said Teaneck Detective Lt. Dean Kazinci. Immigration officials praised the directive.

“We are pleased to learn that the State of New Jersey has decided to forge a statewide collaborative partnership with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)” office, the statement said.

“State and local law enforcement play a critical role in ensuring the safety of our communities,” the ICE office said in a written statement. “During the course of daily duties, they often encounter foreign-born criminals and immigration violators who pose a threat not only to national security but also to public safety.”

Scott Weber, the field office director for ICE in Newark, said the agency is prepared for an increased workload stemming from the directive.

“We can handle it,” he said.

Such a directive very likely would have kept Jose Carranza, one of several people charged in the Aug. 4 killings of three Newark college students, behind bars after previous charges for child rape and aggravated assault, Milgram said. Carranza, from Peru, had been free on bail when the slayings occurred.

Essex County authorities said they were unaware of his status at the time of the two earlier arrests. But they also said their policy had been to notify immigration authorities only after a conviction, not an arrest.

“This is not about immigration — it’s about crimes,” Milgram said during an interview after the news conference. “At the end of the day, the foremost question is a public safety question.” Illegal immigrants suspected of serious crimes can be a flight risk, the attorney general said. Immigration officials have the power to detain an illegal immigrant based on the civil violation of being in the United States unlawfully, pending the prosecution of criminal charges.

“You want to make sure the federal government knows, and the county and local prosecutors know, [a suspect’s immigration status],” Milgram said. “It’s relevant to bail considerations whether an individual has sufficient ties to the community.”

Wednesday’s directive requires that police check the citizenship, nationality and immigration status of suspects during the booking process for charges linked to serious crimes and for driving while intoxicated. An officer who finds or suspects illegal status must contact immigration officials, as well as the prosecuting agency and the courts.

In fiscal years 2005 and 2006, ICE received roughly 7,400 inquiries about immigration status from New Jersey law enforcement authorities, said ICE spokesman Michael Gilhooly. So far this year, that number has risen to 9,400, he said.

ICE has been trying to deepen its connections to local, county and state law enforcement authorities through a federal program that deputizes police to enforce immigration laws. So far, only Morristown has applied to be admitted into the program, which is opposed by immigration advocates who fear it could lead to civil rights abuses against immigrants. Milgram said any town admitted into the program must implement it within the guidelines of her directive.

This could make for an interesting battle.

Although he said it said it was “about time New Jersey does something like this,” Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello said he didn’t believe Milgram could restrict his officers’ actions. “She might have authority to tell my police what they could do as local police, but not when they’re working as federal deputized agents,” the mayor said, emphasizing that he would fight any restrictions that he opposed.

Milgram responded that the directive would supersede federal guidelines because New Jersey law enforcement comes first and foremost under her authority.

Some local police said they’ve asked for proof of citizenship status from people arrested for major crimes, such as robbery and murder, although not necessarily for drunk driving.

Paramus Deputy Police Chief Richard Cary said there already is a question on the department’s standard arrest form about immigration status, and that officers ask suspects in serious criminal cases whether they are U.S. citizens and have the documentation to prove it. However, he said that question currently isn’t part of the standard procedure for processing DUI suspects.

“We do notify immigration [officials] as to the status,” Cary said. “What they do with it is up to their office.”

Some police said they wished immigration officials would more consistently respond to their calls. Too often, they said, immigration authorities seem too busy.

“I would like to see them intervene immediately,” said Clifton Police Capt. Robert Rowan. Charles Goldstein of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, meanwhile, expressed concern that police might abuse their new authority.

“In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, these directives are unavoidable,” he said. “But what is crucial is that this not be utilized for false arrests and that this not lead to creeping racial problems. The ongoing monitoring by the state will be crucial.”

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