Willmar's immigration law enforcement plan sparks ire

Downtown Willmar
Downtown Willmar pictured in this file photo. Some Latino residents are upset that the Willmar city council is considering a federal immigration law enforcement training program for police officers.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

In the west-central Minnesota community of Willmar, some Latino residents are upset that the city council is considering a federal immigration law enforcement training program for police officers.

About a fourth of Willmar's 20,000 residents are Latino. Nearly 100 Latinos and a few white supporters attended a city council meeting this week to show their opposition to the city's possible participation in this program.

The program, a partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, gives state and local law enforcement the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.

The program allows local officers to investigate the status of a suspect who has committed a serious crime and detain the suspect for deportation. ICE supervises and trains an officer for four weeks.

RACIAL PROFILING A CONCERN

Many residents who are concerned about the program believe this will erode the relationship between law enforcement and minority populations in town, said Charly Leuze, director of the West Central Integration Collaborative and a cultural liaison for the city of Willmar. She said people brought their concerns and questions to the city council meeting this week.

"What was the need? What was the urgency? Is there something happening that we don't know about it? I mean, is the crime rate very high?" Leuze said. "And are undocumented people committing those crimes?"

Leuze said one of the biggest concerns is that the program would lead to racial profiling.

The city won't tolerate racial profiling, said Steve Ahmann, a Willmar City Council member. He said he recommended the program to the city council because the federal government has failed to pass immigration reform.

"I think it's long overdue and they've been using it as a political toy for re-election and it's time to deal with the issue," Ahmann said.

He added if Willmar decides to participate, ICE would first have to approve the city's application, and then interview police officers to select one who will receive special training for four weeks. ICE pays for the program's training and the computers to access the ICE databases.

'IT'S A SLAP IN THE FACE'

But Leuze said the fact that the city council is even considering participation in the program is polarizing the Willmar community. The community's two largest immigrant groups are Latinos and East Africans, most of whom have refugee status. Leuze said Latinos feel singled out.

"The [percentage of Latinos in] schools is higher. The schools' [percentage] is almost 40 percent. So just think what that would do to this community? And let's say you're documented and you're a citizen. Why would you want to live here? What's the incentive to stay?" Leuze said. "And so those are the questions that Latino folks are asking themselves. It's a slap in the face."

But Ahmann considers this an enforcement issue. He said this training is no different than any other training police officers get. Ahmann said supporters of this program view this as a tool to deal with immigration issues.

"This is an existing federal law for cities and communities to work and participate with ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to train officers, to collaborate with them and get the illegal people as criminals out of here," said Ahmann. "I think that's why Congress implemented the law and passed this legislation."

The city council is divided over whether to participate in the program, said Bruce DeBlieck, another Willmar City Council member. He said while he'd like to see federal immigration reform, he said he and others believe this partnership requires more research and discussion because it's divisive.

"It is a very polarizing issue and it has a lot of impacts in the community. A lot of people are concerned with what type of impact it's going to have on a community as far as our relationship with the immigrant community," DeBlieck said.

ORGANIZERS SAY POLICE ALREADY ENFORCING IMMIGRATION LAWS

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety is the only official partner with ICE in the state. But some community organizers say while that's the only official partnership in Minnesota, local police are already enforcing immigration laws, especially in small towns in greater Minnesota.

Ernesto Velez Bustos, a community organizer with Centro Campesino in southern Minnesota, said officers are already racially profiling Latinos by stopping them for petty crimes, as an excuse to investigate their immigration status.

"People are detained," said Velez Bustos. "People have been held in county jails without even resolving what the situation is for long periods of time, from a couple of days to a couple of months -- depending on whether they get a hold of someone like us or someone as an immigration attorney to handle the situation."

Velez Bustos said this has happened in several cities, including Austin, Albert Lea, Gaylord, and Worthington. He said police have stopped Latinos for minor incidents, not serious crimes.

REPORT FINDS FLAWS WITH ICE PROGRAM

A March report by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, or OIG, found some flaws with the law enforcement partnership program, also known by its legal designation 287(g).

The report states ICE cannot be assured that this program is meeting its intended purpose, or that resources are being appropriately targeted toward immigrants in the country illegally who pose the greatest risk to public safety.

The program's priority is to identify, detain, and deport criminals who have major drug offenses or who have murdered, raped, and kidnapped. The report found that officers are not adequately trained, and officers detain and prosecute immigrants with little oversight by federal agents. The inspector general provided 23 recommendations to improve the program.

ICE spokesman Greg Palmore said the Homeland Security report doesn't reflect the current law enforcement partnership program with ICE. He said ICE began to fundamentally reform the program well before the report's release.

The inspector general's audit was conducted from February 2009 to July 2009. Palmore said the inspector general was not privy to the program's improvements during its audit.

"We internally at ICE had already started to strengthen the 287(g) process because we knew that there were some issues we needed to make adjustments on," Palmore said. "And basically, some of the areas that we sought for improvement were some of the same areas that the OIG outlined, which we basically fulfilled internally."

Palmore said ICE implemented comprehensive guidelines for ICE field offices that supervise the 287(g) partnerships. He says the improvements include measures to ensure consistency in immigration enforcement across the country.

"We also require officers to maintain a comprehensive documentation on their arrests, detention, and removal data to ensure that operations are focused on criminal aliens and those who pose the greatest risk to public safety," said Palmore.

Palmore said ICE doesn't randomly go after individuals.

"There is no racial profiling. If we are out there to make arrests, it's because we have a reason to," Palmore said. "If we find out racial profiling is an issue, the specific officer in that department could have his 287(g) agreement rescinded."

Palmore said ICE will fully investigate any complaint of racial profiling.

ICE has 71 active agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies in 26 states with more than 1100 trained officers. Palmore said several are still under consideration or under negotiation.

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