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DOJ Opinion on State and Local Police Enforcing Immigration Laws Bodes Ill for Law Enforcement and Communities

Cite as "AILA InfoNet Doc. No. 02040937 (posted Apr. 9, 2002)"

Cite as “Posted on AILA InfoNet, Doc. No. 02040937
(April 09, 2002 ).”



DOJ Opinion on State and Local Police Enforcing Immigration Laws Bodes Ill for Law Enforcement and Communities


The Department of Justice appears poised to issue a legal opinion that states and localities, as sovereign entities have the inherent authority to enforce federal immigration laws.  Such an opinion conflicts with long-standing legal tradition that immigration is a federal matter. It also will encourage state and local law enforcement, with little or no training and stretched resources, to attempt to enforce laws about which they have little understanding.  States and localities are ill served when their police attempt to enforce immigration laws.


  •           Local law enforcement agencies lack the experience and training to enforce federal immigration law. 

 Federal immigration law is a complicated body of law that requires extensive training and expertise to properly enforce.  There are many different ways for people to be lawfully present in the United States, and the INS issues many different types of documents that entitle someone to be in the United States legally.  Local law enforcement officials do not have the training and expertise that is required to determine who is allowed to be in the United States and who is not. 

  •             Relying on local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law will undermine important community relationships.

  Community-based policing is one of the most powerful law enforcement tools available.  By developing strong ties with local communities, police departments are able to obtain valuable information that helps them fight crime.  The development of community-based policing has been widely recognized as an effective tool for keeping kids off drugs, combating gang violence, and reducing crime rates in neighborhoods around the country. 


Immigration enforcement by local police undermines community-policing efforts. Immigrants who live in tightly-knit communities often have information about the people around them that police want.  A local police department that begins to enforce immigration laws will lose the trust of the community it serves and protects. In communities where people are afraid to talk to local police, more crimes go unreported, fewer witnesses come forth, and people are less likely to report suspicious activity. Many immigrants come from countries where people are afraid of the police, and police nationwide have spent years building trust that will be destroyed by asking local police to do the job of a federal agency.

  •             Asking local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law will drain these agencies of scarce dollars and limited resources and lead to problems in enforcement.

 Communities around the country struggle every year to provide enough money and resources to meet their law enforcement needs.  In many communities, response times to 911 calls are dangerously slow and police are no longer able to even investigate certain crimes.  Law enforcement officials in these communities need to spend more time enforcing laws that only they can enforce, and need more resources to protect the neighborhoods in which they live and work.  Cooperation agreements with the federal government have never involved federal dollars, and asking these local agencies to begin enforcing federal immigration law is a disservice to the communities they serve.

  •             Past attempts by local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law have failed, and many local officials have opposed turning their police into immigration agents.

 In 1997, local authorities in Chandler, Arizona conducted a series of roundups to help Border Patrol agents find violators of federal immigration laws.  Widespread complaints by local residents, including U.S. citizens and at least one local elected official who were stopped during the operations, led to an investigation by the Arizona Attorney General. The official report on the investigation concluded that police stopped Hispanics without probable cause, bullied women and children suspected of being illegal immigrants and made late-night entries into homes of suspected illegal immigrants, among other violations.  In 1999, the Chandler City Council unanimously approved a $400,000 settlement of a lawsuit stemming from police roles in the roundup.


Mayors from cities across the country, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, have opposed local police becoming immigration agents for the reasons articulated above: state and local police do not understand immigration law and would thus do a bad job of enforcing laws that are not-well understood, important community relationships that are essential to fighting crime would be damaged, state and local resources would be strained and drained, and states and localities would have to deal with the many negative consequences that would result from poorly conceived attempts to enforce federal immigration laws. 

  •            The legal authority the Department of Justice reportedly cites to support their legal opinion for state and local authorities enforcing immigration law is questionable at best.

 The Department of Justice reportedly cites as justification for this legal opinion a 1984 Tenth Circuit case, United States vs. Salinas-Calderon.  However, Salinas-Calderon doesn't support a state law enforcement officer's power to enforce immigration laws, particularly where the immigration laws are not criminal in nature (and most immigration laws are NOT criminal in nature).  Rather, Salinas-Calderon deals with the narrow, criminal issue of whether a state trooper had probable cause under the 4th Amendment make an arrest after having lawfully stopped and questioned a person (for possible criminal violations).  The case does not address whether state law enforcement officials may detain and interrogate individuals in an effort to enforce federal law.  The state trooper in this particular case did not set out to enforce federal immigration law, and in fact didn't even suspect an immigration violation until after he stopped the car (he originally stopped the car because he believed that "the driver of the vehicle might be under the influence of alcohol or perhaps just drowsy”). 

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