POLICING IMMIGRANTS: LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT ON THE FRONT LINES

Vol. 26 No. 7 (November 2016) pp. 141-143

POLICING IMMIGRANTS: LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT ON THE FRONT LINES, by Doris Marie Provine, Monica Varsanyi, Paul G. Lewis, and Scott H Decker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 206pp. Cloth $75.00 IBSN: 978-0-226-36304-2

Reviewed by Rebecca Hamlin, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Amherst (rhamlin@legal.umass.edu).

This book provides a fascinating and deeply troubling window into a relatively new and thus understudied phenomenon, the increasing role of local law enforcement in implementing federal immigration policy within the borders of the United States. There are many moving parts to this story, yet the four authors make an extremely complex situation intelligible by deftly outlining the constitutional and historical landscape, and then placing the various actors and their incentives and motivations neatly within that frame. The overarching message is that while the Department of Justice claims that geographically uneven enforcement of immigration law is unconstitutional, it is increasingly rampant because of recent federal efforts to enlist local police in the task of immigration enforcement. The authors argue that layering federal immigration policy on top of state level interventions, county and city level initiatives, and widespread officer discretion results in a “multijurisdictional patchwork” (p. 3) of inconsistent and unpredictable policies that are incompatible with basic notions of justice. This claim is well supported by the authors’ presentation of both national survey data and more detailed examinations of seven cities.

POLICING IMMIGRANTS: LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT ON THE FRONT LINES consists of five main chapters, each with a clear purpose. Chapter Two provides a concise history of the relationship between federal, state, and local government in the making and implementing of American immigration policy. This discussion is based primarily on the secondary literature, but it is remarkably comprehensive given its brevity. The authors explain that for most of the 19th century, immigration control was totally in the hands of state and local authorities. Then, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s, the federal government began to assert authority over the policy area. Over the course of the 20th century, the federal government increased its capacity for enforcement, both at the border and internally, via raids. Federal authority went relatively unchallenged by the states until the 1990s, when the issue of illegal immigration gained political traction in many states, and gradually two simultaneous processes resulted. First, the federal government began to reach out to local law enforcement agencies to assist with immigration policy, and second, states began to pass their own immigration policies for the first time in over a century. Both of these activities gained momentum as federal failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform became a protracted reality.

Chapter Three outlines the contemporary patchwork of immigration policies in the United States, with a particular eye towards convincing the reader that this patchwork is not a praiseworthy form of local experimentation. Some states have taken the initiative to implement policies that are harsher on immigration than the federal government, but the real action, the authors seem to suggest, is at the local and county levels, leading to extreme intra-state variation. About half of cities in the U.S. have city-level policies specifically aimed at immigrants, but of those, 60% are restrictive and 40% are supportive (p. 47). The other half of cities have no written policy on how officers should interact with immigrant communities, and no training on working [*142] with undocumented people. This lack of guidance leaves lots of room for officer discretion and variation. The chapter illustrates this variation by describing three particular cases. For example, Mesa, Arizona is located in a state with notorious anti-immigrant policies, but because Mesa has a large immigrant population, it has tried to mitigate state policy by engaging in community policing. However, Mesa is located in Maricopa County, whose Sheriff is zealous about enforcing federal law, even conducting raids in Mesa without the permission of city officials. Thus, a sheriff operating under federal authority, but with no federal oversight was able to undermine city efforts to maintain good community relations, which are essential for fighting crime. The authors describe similarly complex, yet totally different landscapes in New Haven, Connecticut and Raleigh, North Carolina. All three of these case study discussions serve to illustrate a key paradox of the book: that the “federal government has expanded its reach even as it has reduced its oversight” (p. 60).

In Chapter Four, the authors present the results of their national survey of police chiefs and sheriffs. The aim in this chapter is to understand why localities vary so much, by examining their official policies alongside an array of potential explanatory variables. After looking at each variable separately, they present the results of a multivariate analysis, which confirms the major bivariate finding that local politics are the determining factor, not state politics or other big trends (p. 91). Specially, factors such as the crime rate, the unemployment rate, the local importance of immigrant heavy jobs, and state-level immigration policies are not correlated with tougher or softer local level policing strategies towards immigrants. Instead, there are correlations with city level policies, the proportion of immigrants in the community, and the local political leanings. However, the survey only reports what the official policing practice is, as reported by chiefs. Individual officer discretion is yet another variable that complicates the way cities police immigrants.

Thus, Chapter Five discusses the key issue of officer discretion. This issue has received a lot of media attention of late in relation to the question of racial bias in policing, both related to African-Americans and Arab-Americans. Here, the authors focus on the ways in which assumptions about what illegal immigrants look like leads to racial profiling of Latinos by local police. They begin with a puzzle: the authors’ survey of police departments revealed extremely high levels of commitment to working with immigrants via community policing techniques in America’s large cities, and some degree of support for such policies in smaller cities and counties as well. Yet, large-scale public opinion surveys report high levels of distrust among Latinos of the police, and lower likelihood of reporting crimes to the police. The authors basically explain this puzzle by suggesting that local police are being given a blank check to profile immigrants by the federal government.

For example, when the Department of Homeland Security created the Secure Communities program in 2012, which mandated that local law enforcement run any arrestee through immigration databases to see if the person was undocumented, the program had no checks in place to prevent racial profiling. Even now, as Immigration and Customs Enforcement has officially limited the scope of the Secure Communities program to focus on criminal offenders, they have not put into place any mechanism for ensuring that the scope is actually limited. The authors also point out that the Border Patrol is exempt from DOJ guidelines on racial profiling, and explicitly asserts its right to use racial profiling in order to do its work (p. 109). As a matter of law, it is not currently clear whether local law enforcement, when acting under federal immigration authority, are also exempt from federal racial profiling prohibitions. Thus, the authors conclude that “in the exercise of [*143] officer discretion on the frontlines, it seemed that Latino appearance, rather than criminal misbehavior, must have guided many enforcement decisions” since many who were deported under the program had no criminal record (p. 100).

The final chapter, Chapter Six, takes a closer look at relationships between law enforcement and local communities in four case study cities. They describe how in El Paso, Texas, police work closely with immigrant groups to build good relations, but because of its proximity to the border, there is a strong federal presence in the city, leading to confusion and mixed messages. They explain that in Allentown, Pennsylvania, officials seem concerned about how working with immigration agencies might affect their ability to fight the growing crime problem, but they do still report all bookings to immigration authorities. In Dodge City, Kansas, the city government seems to be able to push back against highly restrictive state policies in order to limit enforcement so that undocumented immigrants can live and work in the meat packing plants. However, the authors argue that this hands-off approach has not resulted in good community-police relations, because it is driven by business interests. Finally, the authors describe a climate of hostility in Salem, Oregon, a town with long history of racial animus which is experiencing newfound diversity. After describing these four cases, the authors conclude that local leaders filter federal policy “through the prism of their particular needs and aspirations” (p. 146).

While there are many things to recommend about POLICING IMMIGRANTS: LOCAL LAW ENFORCEMENT ON THE FRONT LINES, to this reader, the biggest weakness of the book is the case studies. The authors make the important observation that their survey data is limited to official policy only, and cannot paint a nuanced picture of what happens on the ground. However, each of the seven case study cities only receives a few pages of discussion, not enough depth to get a sense of what is really happening in these places. The authors say that the seven cities were chosen to represent the “highly varied set of responses” (p. 8) to immigration in the United States, but it is not at all clear whether they are typical or whether they are uniquely complex cases. The authors also do not engage in any comparison between the seven cities they discuss, describing each city only once in the book: three in Chapter Three and four in Chapter Six. Chapter Five, the chapter on officer discretion, talks about the issue in the abstract, and would have been enriched by some discussion of the cases to illustrate the power of discretion, and the extent of the patchwork.

Despite the missed opportunity to make more of the case studies, this is an impressive book that will no doubt inspire more research to follow up on themes outlined within it. The book feels impressively cohesive considering the fact that it was co-authored by four people. It illuminates a very important and timely issue connected to policing in the United States. I would assign parts of this book in my classes, and I imagine that it will be of great use to anyone interested in immigration, policing, federalism, and the complicated relationship between law and politics.

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© Copyright 2016 by author, Rebecca Hamlin.