Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 35
 
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
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State to Cops: Ask for Immigration Status

Matthew Hersh

Police departments throughout the state will have to rethink arrest protocol following a directive from the state's top law enforcer that requires police to ask for a person's immigration status when making arrests for DWI or any indictable crime.

The directive, which was handed down last Wednesday by the state Attorney General's office, has the Princetons worrying that new questioning over immigration will create an impediment to crime investigation and suspect apprehension.

Issued by New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram following the recent Newark schoolyard murders, the mandate requires an arresting officer to inquire about an arrestee's citizenship, nationality, and immigration status. In Newark, one of the chief suspects in the killings, Jose Carranza, is an illegal immigrant from Peru who had been arrested three times prior to the killings, twice for child rape and once for assault.

Under the state directive, local, county, and state law enforcement officials are expected to notify the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the arrest booking process. The directive indicates that police can contact ICE by telephone, fax, or alternate means provided by the federal agency.

But the mandate could also spell a step back for local law enforcement, particularly in Princeton Borough, where the police department has been reaching out to the Borough's Latino population as a way of increasing witness participation in crime solving, as well as to encourage more crimes victims to report incidents.

Police have said in the past that concerns about immigration status have effectively kept some Hispanic residents from coming forward to report a crime. As such, police, up to last week, had refrained from inquiring about immigration status, saying that it was primarily a federal issue.

As recently as last November, when Borough officials took part in an open forum allowing residents to voice community concerns, including matters related to immigration, Borough Police Chief Anthony Federico maintained that Princeton police are not charged with enforcing immigration laws: "On the whole, we are not concerned with immigration law," he said at the time.

But now his department, like other departments from around the state will have to mobilize to devise proper booking protocol that will conform to the Attorney General's directive. In the meantime, the Princetons, as well as the Mercer County Prosecutor's Office, are awaiting instruction from ICE.

"We're still waiting for a little bit of guidance," said Angelo Onofri, spokesperson for the County Prosecutor. "Everybody's gotten the policy and everyone is doing their best to adhere to the Attorney General's directive, but we still have some questions."

Some of those questions include how to determine if an arrestee is, in fact, an illegal immigrant.

"If we stop somebody and arrest them, and they meet the criteria, how are we supposed to check if they are citizens?" asked Borough Chief Anthony Federico, citing his department's sensitivity to immigration matters. "There are a lot of questions, and I don't know yet how it's going to change our procedures because I don't know how we're going to follow the directive," he said.

However, the directive will pose an immediate challenge to Borough officers in DWI enforcement. According to police records, as of June 2007, the year-to-date total of DWI-related arrests stood at 80. In 2006, that number in June was at 112.

While the Attorney General's directive is explicit in stating that "no state, county, or local law enforcement officer shall inquire about or investigate the immigration status of any victim, witness, potential witness, or person requesting or receiving police assistance," Chief Federico worried about the impact of the new protocol on potential witnesses: "We already have a hard enough time with witnesses coming forward."

Princeton Township Police Department Chief Mark Emann echoed his Borough counterpart's concern, though he urged witnesses to come forward without fear of being questioned about their immigration status. He said his department is currently formulating an ICE policy and that "it's our hope that this directive does not undo the strides that we've made in the Latino community."

The directive goes on to state that "no law enforcement officer shall at any time engage in conduct constituting racially-influenced policing."

Other local officials worry that the mandate is overreaching and share the concerns expressed by Chief Federico and Chief Emann. "By adopting this directive and casting such a wide net so as to include relatively minor offenses, the state is discouraging persons to report crimes, testify as witnesses to crimes, and to seek help as victims of crimes," said Borough Councilman Roger Martindell. Mr. Martindell is also a local attorney who works with Spanish-speaking clients from Princeton. "Those in the undocumented community will simply stay silent for fear of deportation. That makes our communities less safe and makes the job of law enforcement more difficult and expensive."

Mr. Martindell endorsed requiring police to report immigration status to ICE where a suspect is charged with more serious crimes, like murder and armed robbery, "but it makes no sense to require such reports in third or fourth degree offenses, such as petty disorderly persons offenses or traffic-related matters, such as driving under the influence."

Maria Juega, a board member of the Princeton-based Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, wrote in a recent editorial that the directive "falls short of what was needed," potentially having the opposite effect of the original intent. "Immigrants will become more fearful and vulnerable to intimidation and abuse."

The two lots fall immediately outside of the Township's Residential Senior Community overlay zone.

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