Philadelphia Metropolis


Bad Policy, Bad Policing

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Philadelphia-Police-Badge1.jpgThe Philadelphia Police Department should get out of the business of acting as de facto deputies of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and stop funneling undocumented immigrants to ICE for deportation.

It is a bad policy and, what is worse, it is bad policing.

As we report in this week's Cover Story, ICE has the unenviable task of doing the impossible: dealing with the estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrants who live and work in the United States.

The approach the Obama administration has taken, through the Secure Communities program, is to target undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes for deportation, a policy that makes sense on the surface.

In practice, though, it is not only hardened criminals who get tossed. It is people who are charged with minor crimes or no crimes at all who are ending up in the net.

A program that was supposed to target sharks has ended up catching mostly minnows.

This is especially true in Philadelphia.

According to ICE data, only 97 of the 421 Philadelphia suspects transferred from Philadelphia Police to ICE custody between October 2008 and February of this year  were convicted of what ICE labels Level 1 offenses, presumably felonies. Another 86 were classified by ICE as Level 2 or Level 3 offenders.

Most suspects - the exact number is 238 - were listed an "non-criminals" - a vague label that I take that to mean they were arrested for minor offenses, such as public intoxication, disorderly conduct, purchase of small amounts of drugs and other misdemeanors, then deported before a trial.

How does ICE get such quick access to the names and details of suspects? The Police Department shares it with them.  The police have given ICE access to the department's computer system that records details of an incident the minute a police officer or detective types it in.

There are more details about the system in our story "The Deportation Machine," part of our two-part series on Philadelphia's growing Mexican community. Most of the 16,000 to 20,000 Mexicans now living in Philadelphia are undocumented and are subject to deportation if they fall into ICE's hands.

I am not here to argue about the wisdom or folly of American immigration policy.

Others can do that.

It's the role of the Philadelphia police that disturbs me.  The job of the police is not to enforce U.S. immigration laws, it is to protect the people of Philadelphia.

We should not ask the police to act as ICE agents anymore than we should ask ICE agents to fight crime on our streets.

It is hard enough to do effective policing in immigrant communities, with their language and cultural barriers.  How much more difficult are we making effective policing among the city's Mexicans, who are concentrated in the Italian Market area of South Philadelphia?

Deputy Mayor of Public Safety Everett Gillison told my colleague Daniel Denvir that despite some stories of people being deported that will tug at your heart strings, the city administration has a policy of cooperating with ICE.

But, the issue is not the accumulation of sob stories. The issue is: what kind of trust can police build among Mexicans if they are widely - and correctly - seen as agents of ICE? Word is out in this community that even casual contact with police can lead to deportation.

If you were a member of this small and insular community, would you call police if you witnessed a crime?  Would you seek police help if you were the victim of a crime?

Of course not.

This explains why a number of cities and states are trying to opt out of ICE. They worry that if their police become entangled in ICE enforcement, it will limit their effectiveness in carrying out their principal job: protecting their local community.


-- Tom Ferrick




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