President’s Message: State and Local Law Enforcement’s Role in Immigration Enforcement

It is clear that the September 11 attacks have had a profound impact on the manner in which law enforcement agencies view their responsibilities and duties. In the ensuing two years, state and local law enforcement agencies have done a magnificent job of meeting the challenges presented by this new reality, and we have done much to make our communities and our citizens safer and more secure.

We used a variety of methods, including increased cooperation with federal law enforcement, reassement of current training and patrol methods, and greater communication and intelligence sharing between and among law enforcement agencies. But the specter of foreign terrorists has also brought the state and local law enforcement community face-to-face with a critical and fundamental question that will likely help shape the way we police our communities, namely, what role should state and local law enforcement play in the enforcement of federal immigration laws?

Significantly, in the 111-year history of the IACP, the membership has never adopted a resolution or policy position on this vital question. The reason for this silence is clear. There is a significant difference of opinion in the law enforcement profession on this issue.

Many law enforcement executives believe that state and local law enforcement should not be involved in the enforcement of civil immigration laws since involvement would likely have a chilling effect on both legal and illegal aliens reporting criminal activity or assisting police in criminal investigations. They believe that this lack of cooperation could diminish the ability of law enforcement agencies to effectively police their communities and protect the public they serve.

Other law enforcement executives believe that it is appropriate for state and local law enforcement to play an active role in immigration enforcement because individuals who are in the country illegally have violated the law and should be treated in the same fashion as other criminals. They feel that it is the duty of state and local law enforcement to assist the federal government and to apprehend and detain these individuals.

Both viewpoints raise valid arguments and it is easy to understand why no consensus has been reached and no policy position has been adopted by the IACP.

Nevertheless, it is my belief that the IACP can no longer remain silent on this issue. In recent months, both the administration and Congress have developed proposals that would greatly expand the role of state and local law enforcement agencies in immigration enforcement. As these proposals are considered, I believe it is vital for the IACP to provide policy makers with a clear articulation of the views and concerns of the law enforcement community on this important question.

For these reasons, the IACP Board of Officers considered this issue during its December meeting. From that discussion it became clear that in addition to the broad philosophical questions associated with this issue, there is confusion over what is the actual legal authority of state and local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration law.

For example, if an individual is an illegal entrant into the United States, he or she has committed a federal felony violation, and state and local law enforcement officers are legally empowered to arrest and detain the individual until federal law enforcement authorities can respond and take custody of the individual. But aliens who entered the United States legally but violated their alien status by overstaying their visas have committed only civil violations, which precludes state and local law enforcement agencies from legally arresting and detaining these individuals.

In addition, the board also noted that any proposal directing state and local law enforcement involvement in immigration enforcement also requires the careful consideration of several practical yet critically important factors: How will law enforcement officers be trained to recognize valid immigration documents? What are the liability issues for an officer and a department who enforce immigration laws? Who would be responsible for the costs of incarcerating illegal aliens?

The board discussion clearly illustrated just how complex this situation is and the potential implications any immigration enforcement responsibilities could have on our officers, our departments, and our communities. The discussion also made clear that it was imperative that the IACP develop a comprehensive position paper to address these critical issues, and the association will be seeking funds to support such a study.

In the coming months, the IACP will be working to develop this document and it is important that all viewpoints be considered. I am looking to the Division of State Associations of Chiefs of Police and the Division of State and Provincial Police to work with their constituents to secure a response. I also urge you to send me, by way of IACP headquarters (515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314), any thoughts, concerns, or suggestions on this critical question.

It is my hope and expectation that soliciting your input on these crucial issues will allow the IACP to produce a clear and concise overview of the issues and challenges associated with the enforcement of immigration laws.

Please cite as

Joseph M. Polisar, “State and Local Law Enforcement’s Role in Immigration Enforcement,” President’s Message, The Police Chief (January 2004),