Local police struggle with immigration issues
Law enforcement officials say their job is complicated by the volatile immigration issue
June 20, 2010|By Antonio Olivo, Tribune reporter
As they rode through Lake County’s immigrant neighborhoods serving arrest warrants, Sheriff’s Deputy John Van Dien and three fellow officers were repeatedly confronted by a public relations problem nagging local law enforcement agencies nationwide.
They weren’t hunting for illegal immigrants, but at nearly every stop, local residents seemed to think they were.
In Mundelein, neighbors watched the burly officers take a handcuffed Mexican immigrant away from his startled children in a scene that resembled thousands of family separations caused by immigration raids. But this was the case of a legal U.S. resident who had skipped court on drunken driving charges.
A few miles away, a Polish woman arrested for drug possession woefully admitted that her U.S. visa had expired, making her deportable and leaving the officers to wonder aloud about the fate of her three children.
And, near Diamond Lake, an elderly man tried to help the officers find a suspect sought for marijuana possession by noting, “There’s a Mexican down at the end of the block.”
A debate over how local law enforcement should deal with illegal immigration has heated up in the wake of a new Arizona law that allows police to check the status of people they stop if they suspect them of being illegal immigrants. In Lake County and other areas where immigrant communities have swelled, it is a question that street cops face every day.
“You’ve got to be so careful, because they’ll accuse you, (saying) ‘You’re just picking on me because I’m Hispanic,'” said Van Dien, 43, during a recent sweep of court-ordered arrests in Lake County that the Tribune was permitted to observe.
“No,” he objected, “we’re picking on you because you came into our country and broke the (local) laws. There’s a lot of people here illegally who we never see because they’re just working and living honest lives.”
Many local law enforcement officials complain that their work has been increasingly complicated by the volatile immigration issue, leading some of them to argue for offering legal status to the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally.
In a vacuum created by Congress’ inaction on immigration, the law enforcement officials say they’re fighting crime amid a patchwork of sometimes counterproductive local solutions, ranging from get-tough state laws like Arizona’s to “sanctuary” ordinances like Cook County’s that instruct authorities not to participate in immigration enforcement.
Prodded by calls to help in an escalating federal crackdown against illegal immigrants, many local agencies, such as the Lake County sheriff’s department, have begun routinely reporting the names of non-U.S. citizens who’ve been arrested for other crimes to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The extra effort adds to a web of local participation in immigration enforcement that includes federal authority for some police agencies to initiate deportation themselves.
At the same time, officials worry their involvement is getting in the way of other police work. The often time-consuming process of confirming whether a prisoner is an illegal immigrant eats into already strained local budgets and is complicated by the spread of fake IDs, which make it difficult to know who is who, law enforcement officials say. Meanwhile, they add, immigrant residents wary of being harassed or deported are unwilling to cooperate in investigations.
“We’re in this federal holding pattern … and it undermines the credibility of local law enforcement,” said Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, whose jurisdiction includes Waukegan. “It makes us look like we … have no interest in upholding the Constitution.”
In the past four years, Lake County has seen its foreign-born population jump by nearly 19 percent to about 13,000 residents. Curran estimates that 20 percent of his jail population is in the country illegally.
The former Democrat, who recently switched to Republican in his bid for re-election in November, has joined other law enforcement officials around the country in opposing laws like Arizona’s. For Curran, it’s part of a recent shift in his stance on immigration.
In 2007, he sought federal approval for his deputies to initiate deportation proceedings, but that was denied. Instead, Curran’s department began holding suspects after reporting their names to ICE.
This year, Curran began arguing that granting legal status to undocumented immigrants in the country would be the most pragmatic solution, both in terms of finding the right people to arrest and not overloading the jails.
“From a law enforcement perspective, I need to know who’s here,” he said.
His Democratic opponent, Douglas Roberts, who also disagrees with the Arizona law, accuses Curran of pandering to Latino voters.
In the communities where Curran’s deputies are working, winning over the immigrant community has been an uphill battle, made worse by a recent spate of incidents in the Chicago area in which three U.S. citizens say they were nearly deported by mistake.
In Lake County, a U.S. citizen born in Mexico was jailed for five days after U.S. marshal deputies mistakenly arrested him instead of an illegal immigrant with the same name, according to the man’s attorney and family. One U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico was jailed for nearly a week in Cook County, even after his mother showed U.S. officials his birth certificate, his lawyer says. A Mexican-born U.S. citizen in McHenry County claims in a federal lawsuit filed last month that he was wrongly jailed overnight after showing his proof of citizenship.
Officials in the first two cases acknowledged the mistakes and said they released the men as soon as the errors were discovered. A McHenry County sheriff’s spokeswoman declined to comment.
In that climate, Van Dien and the other sheriff’s deputies pound on doors in some of the same neighborhoods where ICE officials recently arrested 72 illegal immigrants.
Driving an anonymous-looking minivan and an SUV through leafy cul-de-sac communities and lakeside trailer parks, the officers said they were not concerned about immigration status. But sometimes the topic becomes an obstacle to doing their job.
“You’ll have a (domestic violence) victim who refuses to press charges because they’re worried about the husband being deported, even though she’s got a black eye,” Sheriff’s Deputy Felix Pena said.
The officers worked from a stack of warrants that included immigrants and U.S. citizens from various ethnic backgrounds. The nearly 20 fugitives they sought had missed court appearances after being charged with crimes that included drunken driving, aggravated assault or marijuana possession.
Van Dien — who is 6 foot 4 and 370 pounds with a Bamm-Bamm tattoo on his forearm — cut an intimidating figure each time he got out of the van.
The native of North Chicago drove the van with a pouch of chewing tobacco in his cheek and an automatic rifle and sledgehammer within arm’s reach. He said he sees his job through the eyes of his 6-year-old daughter and through how much the region has changed since his boyhood.
Outside the Mundelein home of Ernesto C. Manjarrez, whom the officers found hiding under a bed, Van Dien appeared emotional as he recounted how the man’s crying preschool-age daughter had tugged on his arm in an effort to free her father.
“I looked at her and said: ‘Honey. Please,'” Van Dien said. “That poor little girl was freaking out.”
At the time, the officers believed that Manjarrez, who faced a felony drunken driving charge, was an illegal immigrant and that they had just split up a family.
But the Lake County sheriff’s office checked his identity with ICE, discovering Manjarrez is in the country legally. Though he was released two days later on bail, a felony conviction could still result in eventual deportation for legal U.S. residents.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Manjarrez told the Tribune, acknowledging before going to jail that potential problems lay ahead.
The officers’ hard-charging style sometimes puts off people in Lake County’s immigrant community, making them unwilling to cooperate in investigations, local activists say.
“Sheriff Curran came in here once and said he’s trying to do the best possible (to improve relations with Latino immigrants,)” noted Jose Luis Zavala, a Waukegan restaurant owner who heads a local immigrant civil rights group. “But, many times, they’re helping to deport Hispanics.”
That notion chilled nearly every conversation the officers had with the immigrant relatives or neighbors of the fugitives they sought, with some responding in terse one-word answers.
During one nighttime search inside a Diamond Lake area trailer-park village for an alleged drunken driver, a neighbor walking with his young daughter froze nervously as police flashlights sliced across his face.
When it seemed obvious the Spanish-speaking man knew nothing about his neighbor, some of the officers thanked him and left. Van Dien, seeing an opportunity, got out of his van and ordered the man, half his size, to follow him to the rear.
Opening the door, Van Dien dug into a plastic bag and pulled out a stuffed purple “Barney” dinosaur, handing it to the man’s smiling daughter.
“Thank you,” her beaming father said in English.
“You’re welcome,” Van Dien replied before driving off to search for another fugitive.