Some of the most violent criminals at large today are illegal aliens. Yet in cities where the crime these aliens commit is highest, the police cannot use the most obvious tool to apprehend them: their immigration status. In Los Angeles, for example, dozens of members of a ruthless Salvadoran prison gang have sneaked back into town after having been deported for such crimes as murder, assault with a deadly weapon, and drug trafficking. Police officers know who they are and know that their mere presence in the country is a felony. Yet should a cop arrest an illegal gangbanger for felonious reentry, it is he who will be treated as a criminal, for violating the LAPDs rule against enforcing immigration law.
The LAPDs ban on immigration enforcement mirrors bans in immigrant-saturated cities around the country, from New York and Chicago to San Diego, Austin, and Houston. These sanctuary policies generally prohibit city employees, including the cops, from reporting immigration violations to federal authorities.
Such laws testify to the sheer political power of immigrant lobbies, a power so irresistible that police officials shrink from even mentioning the illegal-alien crime wave. We cant even talk about it, says a frustrated LAPD captain. People are afraid of a backlash from Hispanics. Another LAPD commander in a predominantly Hispanic, gang-infested district sighs: I would get a firestorm of criticism if I talked about [enforcing the immigration law against illegals]. Neither captain would speak for attribution.
But however pernicious in themselves, sanctuary rules are a symptom of a much broader disease: the nations near-total loss of control over immigration policy. Fifty years ago, immigration policy might have driven immigration numbers, but today the numbers drive policy. The nonstop increase of immigration is reshaping the language and the law to dissolve any distinction between legal and illegal aliens and, ultimately, the very idea of national borders.
It is a measure of how topsy-turvy the immigration environment has become that to ask police officials about the illegal-alien crime problem feels like a gross faux pas, not done in polite company. And a police official asked to violate this powerful taboo will give a strangled responseor, as in the case of a New York deputy commissioner, break off communication altogether. Meanwhile, millions of illegal aliens work, shop, travel, and commit crimes in plain view, utterly secure in their de facto immunity from the immigration law.
I asked the Miami Police Departments spokesman, Detective Delrish Moss, about his employers policy on lawbreaking illegals. In September, the force arrested a Honduran visa violator for seven vicious rapes. The previous year, Miami cops had had the suspect in custody for lewd and lascivious molestation, without checking his immigration status. Had they done so, they would have discovered his visa overstay, a deportable offense, and so could have forestalled the rapes. We have shied away from unnecessary involvement dealing with immigration issues, explains Moss, choosing his words carefully, because of our large immigrant population.
Police commanders may not want to discuss, much less respond to, the illegal-alien crisis, but its magnitude for law enforcement is startling. Some examples:
In Los Angeles, 95 percent of all outstanding warrants for homicide (which total 1,200 to 1,500) target illegal aliens. Up to two-thirds of all fugitive felony warrants (17,000) are for illegal aliens.
A confidential California Department of Justice study reported in 1995 that 60 percent of the 20,000-strong 18th Street Gang in southern California is illegal; police officers say the proportion is actually much greater. The bloody gang collaborates with the Mexican Mafia, the dominant force in California prisons, on complex drug-distribution schemes, extortion, and drive-by assassinations, and commits an assault or robbery every day in L.A. County. The gang has grown dramatically over the last two decades by recruiting recently arrived youngsters, most of them illegal, from Central America and Mexico.
The leadership of the Columbia Lil Cycos gang, which uses murder and racketeering to control the drug market around L.A.s MacArthur Park, was about 60 percent illegal in 2002, says former assistant U.S. attorney Luis Li. Francisco Martinez, a Mexican Mafia member and an illegal alien, controlled the gang from prison, while serving time for felonious reentry following deportation.
Good luck finding any reference to such facts in official crime analysis. The LAPD and the L.A. city attorney recently requested an injunction against drug trafficking in Hollywood, targeting the 18th Street Gang and the nongang members who sell drugs in Hollywood for the gang. Those nongang members are virtually all illegal Mexicans, smuggled into the country by a ring organized by 18th Street bigs. The Mexicans pay off their transportation debts to the gang by selling drugs; many soon realize how lucrative that line of work is and stay in the business.
Cops and prosecutors universally know the immigration status of these non-gang Hollywood dealers, as the city attorney calls them, but the gang injunction is assiduously silent on the matter. And if a Hollywood officer were to arrest an illegal dealer (known on the street as a border brother) for his immigration status, or even notify the Immigration and Naturalization Service (since early 2003, absorbed into the new Department of Homeland Security), he would face severe discipline for violating Special Order 40, the citys sanctuary policy.
The ordinarily tough-as-nails former LAPD chief Daryl Gates enacted Special Order 40 in 1979showing that even the most unapologetic law-and-order cop is no match for immigration advocates. The order prohibits officers from initiating police action where the objective is to discover the alien status of a personin other words, the police may not even ask someone they have arrested about his immigration status until after they have filed criminal charges, nor may they arrest someone for immigration violations. They may not notify immigration authorities about an illegal alien picked up for minor violations. Only if they have already booked an illegal alien for a felony or for multiple misdemeanors may they inquire into his status or report him. The bottom line: a cordon sanitaire between local law enforcement and immigration authorities that creates a safe haven for illegal criminals.
L.A.s sanctuary law and all others like it contradict a key 1990s policing discovery: the Great Chain of Being in criminal behavior. Pick up a law-violator for a minor crime, and you might well prevent a major crime: enforcing graffiti and turnstile-jumping laws nabs you murderers and robbers. Enforcing known immigration violations, such as reentry following deportation, against known felons, would be even more productive. LAPD officers recognize illegal deported gang members all the timeflashing gang signs at court hearings for rival gangbangers, hanging out on the corner, or casing a target. These illegal returnees are, simply by being in the country after deportation, committing a felony (in contrast to garden-variety illegals on their first trip to the U.S., say, who are only committing a misdemeanor). But if I see a deportee from the Mara Salvatrucha [Salvadoran prison] gang crossing the street, I know I cant touch him, laments a Los Angeles gang officer. Only if the deported felon has given the officer some other reason to stop him, such as an observed narcotics sale, can the cop accost himbut not for the immigration felony.
Though such a policy puts the community at risk, the departments top brass brush off such concerns. No big deal if you see deported gangbangers back on the streets, they say. Just put them under surveillance for real crimes and arrest them for those. But surveillance is very manpower-intensive. Where there is an immediate ground for getting a violent felon off the street and for questioning him further, it is absurd to demand that the woefully understaffed LAPD ignore it.
The stated reasons for sanctuary policies are that they encourage illegal-alien crime victims and witnesses to cooperate with cops without fear of deportation, and that they encourage illegals to take advantage of city services like health care and education (to whose maintenance few illegals have contributed a single tax dollar, of course). There has never been any empirical verification that sanctuary laws actually accomplish these goalsand no one has ever suggested not enforcing drug laws, say, for fear of intimidating drug-using crime victims. But in any case, this official rationale could be honored by limiting police use of immigration laws to some subset of immigration violators: deported felons, say, or repeat criminal offenders whose immigration status police already know.
The real reason cities prohibit their cops and other employees from immigration reporting and enforcement is, like nearly everything else in immigration policy, the numbers. The immigrant population has grown so large that public officials are terrified of alienating it, even at the expense of ignoring the law and tolerating violence. In 1996, a breathtaking Los Angeles Times exposé on the 18th Street Gang, which included descriptions of innocent bystanders being murdered by laughing cholos (gang members), revealed the rate of illegal-alien membership in the gang. In response to the public outcry, the Los Angeles City Council ordered the police to reexamine Special Order 40. You would have thought it had suggested reconsidering Roe v. Wade. A police commander warned the council: This is going to open a significant, heated debate. City Councilwoman Laura Chick put on a brave front: We mustnt be afraid, she declared firmly.
But of course immigrant pandering trumped public safety. Law-abiding residents of gang-infested neighborhoods may live in terror of the tattooed gangbangers dealing drugs, spraying graffiti, and shooting up rivals outside their homes, but such anxiety can never equal a politicians fear of offending Hispanics. At the start of the reexamination process, LAPD deputy chief John White had argued that allowing the department to work closely with the INS would give cops another tool for getting gang members off the streets. Trying to build a homicide case, say, against an illegal gang member is often futile, he explained, since witnesses fear deadly retaliation if they cooperate with the police. Enforcing an immigration violation would allow the cops to lock up the murderer right now, without putting a witnesss life at risk.
But six months later, Deputy Chief White had changed his tune: Any broadening of the policy gets us into the immigration business, he asserted. Its a federal law-enforcement issue, not a local law-enforcement issue. Interim police chief Bayan Lewis told the L.A. Police Commission: It is not the time. It is not the day to look at Special Order 40.
Nor will it ever be, as long as immigration numbers continue to grow. After their brief moment of truth in 1996, Los Angeles politicians have only grown more adamant in defense of Special Order 40. After learning that cops in the scandal-plagued Rampart Division had cooperated with the INS to try to uproot murderous gang members from the community, local politicians threw a fit, criticizing district commanders for even allowing INS agents into their station houses. In turn, the LAPD strictly disciplined the offending officers. By now, big-city police chiefs are unfortunately just as determined to defend sanctuary policies as the politicians who appoint them; not so the rank and file, however, who see daily the benefit that an immigration tool would bring.
Immigration politics have similarly harmed New York. Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani sued all the way up to the Supreme Court to defend the citys sanctuary policy against a 1996 federal law decreeing that cities could not prohibit their employees from cooperating with the INS. Oh yeah? said Giuliani; just watch me. The INS, he claimed, with what turned out to be grotesque irony, only aims to terrorize people. Though he lost in court, he remained defiant to the end. On September 5, 2001, his handpicked charter-revision committee ruled that New York could still require that its employees keep immigration information confidential to preserve trust between immigrants and government. Six days later, several visa-overstayers participated in the most devastating attack on the city and the country in history.
New York conveniently forgot the 1996 federal ban on sanctuary laws until a gang of five Mexicansfour of them illegalabducted and brutally raped a 42-year-old mother of two near some railroad tracks in Queens. The NYPD had already arrested three of the illegal aliens numerous times for such crimes as assault, attempted robbery, criminal trespass, illegal gun possession, and drug offenses. The department had never notified the INS.
Citizen outrage forced Mayor Michael Bloomberg to revisit the citys sanctuary decree yet again. In May 2003, Bloomberg tweaked the policy minimally to allow city staffers to inquire into immigration status only if it is relevant to the awarding of a government benefit. Though Bloombergs new rule said nothing about reporting immigration violations to federal officials, advocates immediately claimed that it did allow such reporting, and the ethnic lobbies went ballistic. What were seeing is the erosion of peoples rights, thundered Angelo Falcon of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. After three months of intense agitation by immigrant groups, Bloomberg replaced this innocuous dont ask policy with a dont tell rule even broader than Gothams original sanctuary policy. The new rule prohibits city employees from giving other government officials information not just about immigration status but about tax payments, sexual orientation, welfare status, and other matters.
But even were immigrant-saturated cities to discard their sanctuary policies and start enforcing immigration violations where public safety demands it, the resource-starved immigration authorities couldnt handle the overwhelming additional workload.
The chronic shortage of manpower to oversee, and detention space to house, aliens as they await their deportation hearings (or, following an order of removal from a federal judge, their actual deportation) has forced immigration officials to practice a constant triage. Long ago, the feds stopped trying to find and deport aliens who had merely entered the country illegally through stealth or fraudulent documents. Currently, the only types of illegal aliens who run any risk of catching federal attention are those who have been convicted of an aggravated felony (a particularly egregious crime) or who have been deported following conviction for an aggravated felony and who have reentered (an offense punishable with 20 years in jail).
That triage has been going on for a long time, as former INS investigator Mike Cutler, who worked with the NYPD catching Brooklyn drug dealers in the 1970s, explains. If you arrested someone you wanted to detain, youd go to your boss and start a bidding war, Cutler recalls. Youd say: 'My guy ran three blocks, threw a couple of punches, and had six pieces of ID.' The boss would turn to another agent: 'Next! Whaddid your guy do?' 'He ran 18 blocks, pushed over an old lady, and had a gun.' But such one-upmanship was usually fruitless. Without the jail space, explains Cutler, it was like the Fish and Wildlife Service; youd tag their ear and let them go.
But even when immigration officials actually arrest someone, and even if a judge issues a final deportation order (usually after years of litigation and appeals), they rarely have the manpower to put the alien on a bus or plane and take him across the border. Second alternative: detain him pending removal. Again, inadequate space and staff. In the early 1990s, for example, 15 INS officers were in charge of the deportation of approximately 85,000 aliens (not all of them criminals) in New York City. The agencys actual response to final orders of removal was what is known as a run lettera notice asking the deportable alien kindly to show up in a month or two to be deported, when the agency might be able to process him. Results: in 2001, 87 percent of deportable aliens who received run letters disappeared, a number that was even higher94 percentif they were from terror-sponsoring countries.
To other law-enforcement agencies, the feds triage often looks like complete indifference to immigration violations. Testifying to Congress about the Queens rape by illegal Mexicans, New Yorks criminal justice coordinator defended the citys failure to notify the INS after the rapists previous arrests on the ground that the agency wouldnt have responded anyway. We have time and time again been unable to reach INS on the phone, John Feinblatt said last February. When we reach them on the phone, they require that we write a letter. When we write a letter, they require that it be by a superior.
Criminal aliens also interpret the triage as indifference. John Mullaly a former NYPD homicide detective, estimates that 70 percent of the drug dealers and other criminals in Manhattans Washington Heights were illegal. Were Mullaly to threaten an illegal-alien thug in custody that his next stop would be El Salvador unless he cooperated, the criminal would just laugh, knowing that the INS would never show up. The message could not be clearer: this is a culture that cant enforce its most basic law of entry. If policings broken-windows theory is correct, the failure to enforce one set of rules breeds overall contempt for the law.
The sheer number of criminal aliens overwhelmed an innovative program that would allow immigration officials to complete deportation hearings while a criminal was still in state or federal prison, so that upon his release he could be immediately ejected without taking up precious INS detention space. But the process, begun in 1988, immediately bogged down due to the numbersin 2000, for example, nearly 30 percent of federal prisoners were foreign-born. The agency couldnt find enough pro bono attorneys to represent such an army of criminal aliens (who have extensive due-process rights in contesting deportation) and so would have to request delay after delay. Or enough immigration judges would not be available. In 1997, the INS simply had no record of a whopping 36 percent of foreign-born inmates who had been released from federal and four state prisons without any review of their deportability. They included 1,198 aggravated felons, 80 of whom were soon re-arrested for new crimes.
Resource starvation is not the only reason for federal inaction. The INS was a creature of immigration politics, and INS district directors came under great pressure from local politicians to divert scarce resources into distribution of such benefits as permanent residency, citizenship, and work permits, and away from criminal or other investigations. In the late 1980s, for example, the INS refused to join an FBI task force against Haitian drug trafficking in Miami, fearing criticism for Haitian-bashing. In 1997, after Hispanic activists protested a much-publicized raid that netted nearly two dozen illegals, the Border Patrol said that it would no longer join Simi Valley, California, probation officers on home searches of illegal-alien-dominated gangs.
The disastrous Citizenship USA project of 1996 was a luminous case of politics driving the INS to sacrifice enforcement to benefits. When, in the early 1990s, the prospect of welfare reform drove immigrants to apply for citizenship in record numbers to preserve their welfare eligibility, the Clinton administration, seeing a political bonanza in hundreds of thousands of new welfare-dependent citizens, ordered the naturalization process radically expedited. Thanks to relentless administration pressure, processing errors in 1996 were 99 percent in New York and 90 percent in Los Angeles, and tens of thousands of aliens with criminal records, including for murder and armed robbery, were naturalized.
Another powerful political force, the immigration bar association, has won from Congress an elaborate set of due-process rights for criminal aliens that can keep them in the country indefinitely. Federal probation officers in Brooklyn are supervising two illegalsa Jordanian and an Egyptian with Saudi citizenshipwho look ready to blow up the Statue of Liberty, according to a probation official, but the officers cant get rid of them. The Jordanian had been caught fencing stolen Social Security and tax-refund checks; now he sells phone cards, which he uses himself to make untraceable calls. The Saudis offense: using a fraudulent Social Security number to get employmenta puzzlingly unnecessary scam, since he receives large sums from the Middle East, including from millionaire relatives. But intelligence links him to terrorism, so presumably he worked in order not to draw attention to himself. Currently, he changes his cell phone every month. Ordinarily such a minor offense would not be prosecuted, but the government, fearing that he had terrorist intentions, used whatever it had to put him in prison.
Now, probation officers desperately want to see the duo out of the country, but the two ex-cons have hired lawyers, who are relentlessly fighting their deportation. Due process allows you to stay for years without an adjudication, says a probation officer in frustration. A regular immigration attorney can keep you in the country for three years, a high-priced one for ten. In the meantime, Brooklyn probation officials are watching the bridges.
Even where immigration officials successfully nab and deport criminal aliens, the reality, says a former federal gang prosecutor, is that they all come back. They cant make it in Mexico. The tens of thousands of illegal farmworkers and dishwashers who overpower U.S. border controls every year carry in their wake thousands of brutal assailants and terrorists who use the same smuggling industry and who benefit from the same irresistible odds: there are so many more of them than the Border Patrol.
For, of course, the governments inability to keep out criminal aliens is part and parcel of its inability to patrol the border, period. For decades, the INS had as much effect on the migration of millions of illegals as a can tied to the tail of a tiger. And the immigrants themselves, despite the press cliché of hapless aliens living fearfully in the shadows, seemed to regard immigration authorities with all the concern of an elephant for a flea.
Certainly fear of immigration officers is not in evidence among the hundreds of illegal day laborers who hang out on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, New York, in front of money wire services, travel agencies, immigration-attorney offices, and phone arcades, all catering to the local Hispanic population (as well as to drug dealers and terrorists). There is no chance of getting caught, cheerfully explains Rafael, an Ecuadoran. Like the dozen Ecuadorans and Mexicans on his particular corner, Rafael is hoping that an SUV seeking carpenters for $100 a day will show up soon. We dont worry, because were not doing anything wrong. I know its illegal; I need the papers, but here, nobody asks you for papers.
Even the newly fortified Mexican border, the one spot where the government really tries to prevent illegal immigration, looms as only a minor inconvenience to the day laborers. The odds, they realize, are overwhelmingly in their favor. Miguel, a reserved young carpenter, crossed the border at Tijuana three years ago with 15 others. Border Patrol spotted them, but with six officers to 16 illegals, only five got caught. In illegal border crossings, you get what you pay for, Miguel says. If you try to shave on the fee, the coyotes will abandon you at the first problem. Miguels wife was flying into New York from Los Angeles that very day; it had cost him $2,200 to get her across the border. Because I pay, I dont worry, he says complacently.
The only way to dampen illegal immigration and its attendant train of criminals and terroristsshort of an economic revolution in the sending countries or an impregnably militarized borderis to remove the jobs magnet. As long as migrants know they can easily get work, they will find ways to evade border controls. But enforcing laws against illegal labor is among governments lowest priorities. In 2001, only 124 agents nationwide were trying to find and prosecute the hundreds of thousands of employers and millions of illegal aliens who violate the employment laws, the Associated Press reports.
Even were immigration officials to devote adequate resources to worksite investigations, not much would change, because their legal weapons are so weak. Thats no accident: though it is a crime to hire illegal aliens, a coalition of libertarians, business lobbies, and left-wing advocates has consistently blocked the fraud-proof form of work authorization necessary to enforce that ban. Libertarians have erupted in hysteria at such proposals as a toll-free number to the Social Security Administration for employers to confirm Social Security numbers. Hispanics warn just as stridently that helping employers verify work eligibility would result in discrimination against Hispanicsimplicitly conceding that vast numbers of Hispanics work illegally.
The result: hiring practices in illegal-immigrant-saturated industries are a charade. Millions of illegal workers pretend to present valid documents, and thousands of employers pretend to believe them. The law doesnt require the employer to verify that a worker is actually qualified to work, and as long as the proffered documents are not patently phonyscrawled with red crayon on a matchbook, saythe employer will nearly always be exempt from liability merely by having eyeballed them. To find an employer guilty of violating the ban on hiring illegal aliens, immigration authorities must prove that he knew he was getting fake papersan almost insurmountable burden. Meanwhile, the market for counterfeit documents has exploded: in one month alone in 1998, immigration authorities seized nearly 2 million of them in Los Angeles, destined for immigrant workers, welfare seekers, criminals, and terrorists.
For illegal workers and employers, there is no downside to the employment charade. If immigration officials ever do try to conduct an industry-wide investigationwhich will at least net the illegal employees, if not the employerslocal congressmen will almost certainly head it off. An INS inquiry into the Vidalia-onion industry in Georgia was not only aborted by Georgias congressional delegation; it actually resulted in a local amnesty for the growers illegal workforce. The downside to complying with the spirit of the employment law, on the other hand, is considerable. Ethnic advocacy groups are ready to picket employers who dismiss illegal workers, and employers understandably fear being undercut by less scrupulous competitors.
Of the incalculable changes in American politics, demographics, and culture that the continuing surge of migrants is causing, one of the most profound is the breakdown of the distinction between legal and illegal entry. Everywhere, illegal aliens receive free public education and free medical care at taxpayer expense; 13 states offer them drivers licenses. States everywhere have been pushed to grant illegal aliens college scholarships and reduced in-state tuition. One hundred banks, over 800 law-enforcement agencies, and dozens of cities accept an identification card created by Mexico to credentialize illegal Mexican aliens in the U.S. The Bush administration has given its blessing to this matricula consular card, over the strong protest of the FBI, which warns that the gaping security loopholes that the card creates make it a boon to money launderers, immigrant smugglers, and terrorists. Border authorities have already caught an Iranian man sneaking across the border this year, Mexican matricula card in hand.
Hispanic advocates have helped blur the distinction between a legal and an illegal resident by asserting that differentiating the two is an act of irrational bigotry. Arrests of illegal aliens inside the border now inevitably spark protests, often led by the Mexican government, that feature signs calling for no más racismo. Immigrant advocates use the language of human rights to appeal to an authority higher than such trivia as citizenship laws. They attack the term amnesty for implicitly acknowledging the validity of borders. Indeed, grouses Illinois congressman Luis Gutierrez, Theres an implication that somehow you did something wrong and you need to be forgiven.
Illegal aliens and their advocates speak loudly about what they think the U.S. owes them, not vice versa. I believe they have a right . . . to work, to drive their kids to school, said California assemblywoman Sarah Reyes. An immigration agent says that people he stops get in your face about their rights, because our failure to enforce the law emboldens them. Taking this idea to its extreme, Joaquín Avila, a UCLA Chicano studies professor and law lecturer, argues that to deny non-citizens the vote, especially in the many California cities where they constitute the majority, is a form of apartheid.
Yet no poll has ever shown that Americans want more open borders. Quite the reverse. By a huge majorityat least 60 percentthey want to rein in immigration, and they endorse an observation that Senator Alan Simpson made 20 years ago: Americans are fed up with efforts to make them feel that [they] do not have that fundamental right of any peopleto decide who will join them and help form the future country in which they and their posterity will live. But if the elites and the advocates idea of giving voting rights to non-citizen majorities catches onand dont be surprised if it doesAmericans could be faced with the ultimate absurdity of people outside the social compact making rules for those inside it.
However the nation ultimately decides to rationalize its chaotic and incoherent immigration system, surely all can agree that, at a minimum, authorities should expel illegal-alien criminals swiftly. Even on the grounds of protecting non-criminal illegal immigrants, we should start by junking sanctuary policies. By stripping cops of what may be their only immediate tool to remove felons from the community, these policies leave law-abiding immigrants prey to crime.
But the non-enforcement of immigration laws in general has an even more destructive effect. In many immigrant communities, assimilation into gangs seems to be outstripping assimilation into civic culture. Toddlers are learning to flash gang signals and hate the police, reports the Los Angeles Times. In New York City, every high school has its Mexican gang, and most 12- to 14-year-olds have already joined, claims Ernesto Vega, an illegal 18-year-old Mexican. Such pathologies only worsen when the first lesson that immigrants learn about U.S. law is that Americans dont bother to enforce it. Institutionalizing illegal immigration creates a mindset in people that anything goes in the U.S., observes Patrick Ortega, the news and public-affairs director of Radio Nueva Vida in southern California. It creates a new subculture, with a sequela of social ills. It is broken windows writ large.
For the sake of immigrants and native-born Americans alike, its time to decide what our immigration policy isand enforce it.