The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

Local News

November 27, 2011

Police officials say immigration law causing few issues

ATHENS — A common reservation among Alabama’s Hispanic residents following the passage of the immigration law was how law enforcement officials would treat them. Law enforcement agencies also expressed concern about whether the law would over-extend valuable financial and personnel resources.

Nearly three months after the law went into effect, local law enforcement officials say it hasn’t affected city and county resources to a great extent.

Athens Police Capt. Floyd Johnson said his department is still in the process of feeling out the law as different scenarios arise, but it hasn’t had a great impact on day-to-day responsibilities.

“We are enforcing the law and we have had several that ICE (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement) have to detain,” he said. “We’ve worked with the mayor and he’s been very proactive in getting the city attorney and department heads together to implement policies.”

Now, as in the past, if a city officer arrests an illegal immigrant, that person is transferred to the Limestone County jail where he or she is held until being picked up by an ICE officer. Johnson said the department has been vigilant about observing portions of the law that prohibit officers from racial profiling.

He said there are always different scenarios — from simple traffic citations to arrests on more serious charges — that must be considered when dealing with a potential illegal immigrant. If an officer pulls someone over for a traffic violation and the subject has an invalid license or no license at all, the law gives officers leeway to begin background checks on the subject.

“We’re required to go through that process, but if they have a (a license), they’re presumed a citizen,” Johnson said.

He said officers have attended classes on following the law and the city is working closely with the Alabama League of Municipalities to ensure the department is acting within the confines of the measure.

“Multiple cities are getting together and … that’s given us some clarification outside of just reading the law,” he said. “You can hear about it and read it in the news, but until you get that opinion or advice, we don’t want to do something we shouldn’t be doing.”

Sheriff Mike Blakely said most of his department’s resources are not being stretched thin because of illegal immigration arrests, but instead because of investigations into the alleged mistreatment of illegal immigrants.

He cited one recent example of a local woman who purchased a car from a Huntsville dealership and gave the title of the car back to the dealer out of confusion. When the woman tried to get the title back, the dealer refused.

“We’re starting to see a lot more requests from folks wanting us to investigate these kinds of cases,” Blakely said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

In terms of the arrests of illegal immigrants, the sheriff said there hasn’t been a noticeable increase because he feels many illegal immigrants have left the community. However, he said the department’s call volume is rising because residents want officers to investigate neighbors who they believe are illegal.

“There’s a lot of people confused about the law and people are getting frustrated with us,” he said. “If they suspect someone is illegal, we can’t just go out and check them out. The law prohibits us from doing that. We can contact ICE, but unless they’re committing a crime, we have no authority (to arrest them).”

He said ICE has a good working relationship with local departments, which helps alleviate additional responsibilities that would otherwise fall on his officers. If an illegal immigrant is in the jail, ICE coordinates deportation procedures, not the department.

“There’s no drain on our resources, other than the ones being taken advantage of and folks upset that (illegal immigrants) are living in their neighborhood,” Blakely said. “We’re just taking it slowly to make sure we don’t have a bunch of snafus.”

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