Photo by Jack GouldThirty-one years ago, Jose Vargas says, Orange County law enforcement had a coherent—if unwritten—policy on dealing with undocumented residents: "We would go to the strawberry fields and see 100 strawberry pickers and say, 'We need 10 volunteers to go back to Mexico!'"
According to Vargas, a community liaison officer who recently retired from the Santa Ana Police Department, the strawberry pickers would talk amongst themselves—ostensibly to figure out who had already been deported recently. Their negotiation would produce 10 unlucky volunteers for the one-way trip to Tijuana.
"The Border Patrol would come and pick them up," Vargas explained. "The [remaining] strawberry pickers would be happy, the police chief would be happy, and the politicians were happy."
But Vargas, who told his story at a Feb. 22 meeting of Los Amigos of Orange County, said he wasn't happy about what he felt was random harassment of undocumented Latinos by law enforcement. "It was a mockery of justice," he admitted. "I've been waiting for a clear police policy on immigration for 31 years, and I'm glad we will soon have one."
Note to Vargas: don't hold your breath.
Trapped between anti-immigration groups and increasingly vocal .immigrant-rights groups, the county's cops find themselves unable to develop a policy governing their contact with
suspected illegal immigrants.
What's clear is that they'd rather not get involved.
"It takes a lot of resources and time to enforce immigration laws," asserted Santa Ana Police Sgt. Raul Luna. "That's not our job. We'd be running back and forth constantly. We don't want a police state. We want to work with the community. Without the eyes and the ears of people in the community, we can't function."
Local police officers aren't supposed to enforce federal immigration laws; that's the job of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But two weeks ago, the Times Orange County revealed that at least eight of Orange County's 22 local law-enforcement agencies have routinely sent suspected illegal immigrants to the INS checkpoint in San Clemente for deportation—often after the suspects had been cited for minor traffic offenses.
As a result of the expos, organizations such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the ACLU are weighing lawsuits against the police departments involved. On the other side, the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR) is working to get Anaheim's City Council to adopt a resolution allowing police officers to act as deputized INS agents.
On Feb. 13, Nativo Lopez, executive director of the Santa Ana chapter of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, brought roughly 100 protesters to Anaheim's City Council meeting. Lopez told the council his group opposes "any cooperation" between city police and immigration authorities, arguing that such a relationship puts local police in the role of federal officials. He threatened to return to the council's next meeting with 1,000 people unless the city promises to halt all contact with the INS.
Anaheim already operates a program that allows an INS officer based in the city jail to deport suspected illegal immigrants once they've been arrested. The program, since adopted by more than a dozen cities nationwide, was created by Harald Martin, an Anaheim police officer.
Anaheim cops acknowledge that Martin makes their lives difficult. As the former president of the Anaheim Union High School District board of trustees, Martin tried unsuccessfully to sue Mexico for the cost of educating undocumented children in the city's classrooms. He also helped draft CCIR's controversial proposal to deputize Anaheim cops as INS agents and is lionized by Orange County's anti-immigration community.
"Harald Martin and [CCIR president] Barbara Coe do not dictate our policies and procedures,"
asserted Luna. "They are a small group at the extreme end and [CCIR's proposal] will never happen."
Luna also said that, unlike Anaheim, Santa Ana neither operates a jail program with the INS nor participates in INS raids. Luna claimed that the Santa Ana Police Department does have a specific written policy prohibiting officers from asking direct questions about citizenship status during any encounter with the public.
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Eight different police departments sent 2,207 undocumented residents to the INS checkpoint at San Clemente, according to the recent Times expos. The Santa Ana Police Department sent 123 of those people. Luna's explanation: Santa Ana officers don't ask about immigration status, but they do
routinely ask for driver's licenses when they interview witnesses or victims of crimes. If the person in question has no identification—and also happens to be an illegal immigrant—he or she will often confess to being in the country illegally.
According to Luna, many of the 123 people sent to the INS checkpoint in San Clemente simply gave themselves up. "Many of these people asked to be deported to Mexico," he claimed.
Hermandad's Lopez isn't buying that explanation. He says Orange County needs a coherent, countywide policy governing how police officers deal with suspected illegal immigrants.
"Do these police departments have a written policy permitting their officers to deport people, or is this a case of officers who have run amok?" Lopez asked. "If these departments don't have a written policy allowing their officers to do this—and officers are still deporting people—then we have a major problem. The alternative is that the police will become the judge, jury and jailer all at the same time."