Congress did authorize us to enforce immigration laws E-mail
Written by Chris Vásquez   

American Police Beat March 2008

Over the past several years illegal immigration has been an issue of great debate around the country. Some law enforcement agencies take the stance that enforcing immigration law is the job of the Federal Government and that local law enforcement does not have the authority to enforce those laws.

To some degree, up until about September 1996, this was true. However, Congress added a section to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act which authorizes the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to enter into written agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies.

The written agreement permits certified law enforcement officers to perform select immigration law enforcement functions. This was done to identify people in the country illegally who are involved in violent crimes, human smuggling, gang/organized crime activity, narcotics smuggling and money laundering  so they can be deported.

Once an agreement is entered into with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) peace officers receive about five weeks of training on how to determine whether a person is in the United States legally or not, also, how to enforce the immigration laws without racial profiling. Once trained, the peace officer receives an official certification which give them the authority to question and detain individuals for potential removal from the United States if the individuals are identified as criminal illegal aliens who pose a significant threat to national security or public safety.

Over the past year my staff and I have had several meetings with Alonzo R. Pena, Special Agent in Charge of the Arizona ICE Office, and his staff to offer the certification to my deputies and detention officers. We are hoping this will be accomplished sometime in the future. I am told by his staff that we are on a waiting list and that the main hold-up is the lack of funding and trainers to provide the training. My goal is to train as many deputies and detention officers at possible.

The current policy at the Pinal County Sheriff's Office in Arizona with regard to immigration issues is to have a deputy inquire into a person's immigration status only during the course of a criminal investigation or a criminal traffic stop. If it is determined the person is an illegal alien they will be detained for Border Patrol to deport to their country of origin. If the person is arrested for violating Arizona criminal law, they will be booked into the Pinal County Adult Detention Facility to face those charges with a hold for Border Patrol for deportation.

The Sheriff's Office will investigate all complaints of a potential drop house. Should a drop house be located and there is enough evidence to show human smuggling, arrests will be made. The United States Attorney General rendered an opinion about a United States Supreme Court decision, Muehler v. Mena dealing in part with police asking a person about their immigration status. The Attorney General's opinion is the Supreme Court's intent is that local police officers can ask a person their legal status during a legal criminal investigation or criminal traffic stop.

It is the opinion of the Attorney General that local law enforcement cannot inquire as to immigration status in any other cases. The enforcing immigration laws at the local level presents many legal challenges for local law enforcement. One of the major challenge is to enforce the laws without racial profiling, which could lead to costly lawsuits. Our agency is doing everything possible to understand this issue in all its complexities and we are determined that Pinal County will not become a "sanctuary" county.

Chris Vásquez is the sheriff of  the Pinal County Sheriff's Office in Arizona.

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