As an immigration lawyer, I have watched for years the complex interplay between state, local and federal authorities on the thorny issues related to immigration. One of the most consistent activities of local law enforcement agencies is to transfer responsibility for legal action against suspected undocumented aliens to federal law enforcement officers. This has been most apparent in some Northern Border communities where police officers have requested interpretation services from the Customs and Border Protection Agency. In many cases, when a CBP officer is used in the questioning of individuals with language difficulties, they often ask about their immigration status, which can lead to an arrest and criminal proceedings. In some cases CBP officers are even asked to help answer 911 calls if the caller is having difficulty with English.
In response to criticism that these procedures unfairly targeted individuals without English skills, the Department of Homeland Security has instituted a new policy to refuse interpretation services to local police. Instead, these requests will be transferred to professional translation services. Immigration advocates have pointed out that it is unconstitutional to identify undocumented immigrants as a result of language deficiencies or looking like immigrants.
Although this has been a roundabout method for local police to remove illegal immigrants from their communities, some police officers recognize that immigrant communities have lost faith in government agencies, which can undermine efforts to combat crime. Many immigrants in Northern Border areas are significantly less willing to use 911 and other emergency services out of fear that they could face deportation.
The Department of Homeland Security has not explained its policy change, but it is almost assuredly a result of pressure from immigration advocacy groups. A report by One America showed that the human rights of immigrants were violated by police in these communities numerous times, and that Border Patrol agents were often involved as interpreters. A dozen Congressional leaders have also asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate whether CBP officials have overstepped their authority by stopping drivers within 100 miles of the northern border.
The Northern Border with Canada has doubled its contingent of U.S. Border patrol agents since 2007. These federal officers have often helped local police in a number of areas outside of interpretation including assistance in cases of personnel and equipment shortages.
Advocates for immigrants have praised the DHS’ new policy shift, saying it allows immigrants greater access to emergency health care and law enforcement. Without fear that Border Patrol agents will be called in, undocumented aliens are more willing to use emergency services in response to a health crisis or crime.
As an immigration attorney in Austin, Texas, I find the issue of using federal officials for interpretation and identification of undocumented immigrants is of less importance, but I urge members of immigrant communities to be aware that these issues are often related to national immigration laws.
If you or someone you know is involved in deportation proceedings as a result of a minor legal infraction, or if you would like to discuss a related issue, my office is always available to provide a private and confidential consultation. Please contact me at (512) 215-5225.