This is a complicated time to be a rural sheriff or small town police chief. There is a nationwide opioid crisis and a worrisome resurgence of methamphetamine use in the Pacific Northwest — with associated thefts and break-ins. Meanwhile, federal immigration enforcement under the Trump administration has heightened conflicts and tensions between neighbors.
Immigration isn’t the business of local law-enforcement agencies, which have plenty on their understaffed schedules without getting involved in issues for which they are neither paid nor trained. As a matter of public policy, national and local leaders decided long ago that protecting all residents against crime is a goal best served by maintaining a separation between criminal and immigration law. If immigrants have to fear arrest by local cops because of flaws in their legal status, they are less likely to call for help or assist in combating crimes that hurt everybody.
It has never been controversial to seek, arrest, prosecute, imprison and deport undocumented immigrants who commit felonies or serious misdemeanors. Often preying on their immigrant neighbors, criminal gangs on the West Coast were targeted as much or more by the Obama administration as they are by Trump. Against such individuals, we all have common cause with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Controversies and conflicts arise in the case of detaining and deporting otherwise law-abiding immigrants who overstay visas or come across the border illegally in seek of work. In this area, they usually end up in aquacultural, agricultural and service-industry jobs that are regarded as unappealing by citizens — tough and dirty work at all hours of the night and day. Many citizens in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the nation find it contemptible and economically self-defeating to target them.
“It ought not to be — and it has never before been — that those who have lived without incident in this country for years are subjected to treatment we associate with regimes we revile as unjust,” a U.S. District Court judge said recently in ordering the release of an immigration activist. “We are not that country.”
However, a substantial number of other citizens are deeply offended that immigration laws have long been scoffed at.
Officers are detaining suspects in courthouses more often, and ICE teams no longer shy from taking additional people into custody when they knock on doors to arrest a targeted person, the Washington Post reported on Feb. 11. “What are we supposed to do?” an ICE spokesman asked. If ICE fails to uphold its duties to enforce immigration laws, he added, “then the system has no integrity.”
Anytime there is such a sharp split in opinion, local office holders and appointees must trend gingerly. No matter their personal views, sheriffs and police have no business diverting resources to help ICE, while neither may they impede immigration enforcement. Officials in Pacific County — which has been featured in national and international news stories about ICE — have to straddle this societal fault line. There’s no indication they have transgressed boundaries in either direction, for or against ICE or immigrants. But this hasn’t kept them out of hot water with all constituents.
Law officers face a similar dilemma throughout the region and nation. Lessons from Pacific County include the need for agency leaders to know precisely what information they are receiving or providing ICE. They must act with good conscience in upholding state and local laws, steering clear of national disagreements.
Immigration laws — whatever we individually think of them — originate in Congress. By choosing who to elect or send packing for home, citizens will have their chance this November to tell ICE whether a majority of us like what it is doing.