February 26, 2014

Police Will Not Enforce Immigration Laws

Officers of the Princeton Police Department (PPD) received training last week on how to handle immigration status with respect to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) laws. 

“This is an important step in building trust with the immigrant community in Princeton,” said Police Commissioner Heather Howard, who also chairs the municipality’s Public Safety Committee. “In a nutshell, the Princeton Police Department will not be enforcing immigration laws. This is important for everybody. If we want a safe community, it must be safe for everyone and any victim, no matter what their immigration status, should feel comfortable coming forward to report a crime.”

The training puts into operation an order that was adopted by the department in the fall, clarifying the role of local police in relation to federal immigration enforcement. It is designed to enhance public safety by ensuring that people who are victims of, or witnesses to, crime are not afraid to cooperate with police.

“The order was the result of a long and close collaboration with the Human Services Commission (HSC) and the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund (LALDEF). It builds on new outreach by Spanish speaking officers in the community, and sends a strong message that witnesses or victims should not be afraid to come forward and work with local law enforcement,” said Ms. Howard.

The order states: that “Local police are not charged with the enforcement of federal immigration laws. The federal government and its agencies are the authorities responsible for enforcement of immigration law Й. Immigration enforcement by state and local police would have an adverse effect in community/police relations. It is the intention of the Princeton Police to maintain positive relations with all members of the Princeton Community by providing fair, compassionate, and unbiased police service to all community members regardless of the community members’ immigration status.”

Although the order was adopted last fall, both Captain Nick Sutter, the department’s acting chief, and the Public Safety Committee felt it important to “operationalize it through officer training.”

During the training, officers received an explanation of Federal Immigration Law from local immigration attorney Ryan Lilienthal with Mr. Sutter on hand to facilitate discussion on the role of local officers. A representative of New Labor, which works with immigrant groups, spoke on workers rights and a speaker from the New Jersey Departtment of Labor discussed wage theft law.

“Last year, about 10 cases of wage theft were investigated and rectified through mediation,” said Mr. Sutter. “Increasing awareness leads to increasing reports to the police. We are not necessarily trying to make arrests but rather trying to solve the problem in a positive way. Sometimes these cases can be more complicated than they first appear and they are by no means confined to construction workers, but cross all types of professional lines.”

According to John Heilner, volunteer chair of the HSC subcommittee on immigration issues, victims might be employed by contractors, restaurant owners, landscapers, private residents, or companies who employ immigrants as cleaners or nannies.

Wage Theft

Wage theft is a crime that takes advantage of people with undocumented status. In collaboration with LALDEF, HSC, and New Labor, the PPD has created a new intake process for people to come forward and report it.

The form asks about the nature of the crime being reported, which might be something like: receiving no overtime for a 12 hour day; working 50 hours and being paid for only 30; or being charged a per diem deduction from wages for the use of tools.

“We’ve barely scratched the surface of this problem, which is widespread across the country,” said Mr. Heilner, who points out that a violation of the New Jersey State minimum hourly wage is also wage theft. The state’s minimum wage is currently $8.25 per hour, higher than the federal minimum wage.

Think of a worker who is undocumented. He or she takes on a job for a few days and then an unscrupulous employer withholds wages from someone who may feel unable to demand fair payment because he or she fears that by reporting the “wage theft,” they might fall afoul of immigration law.

The issue came to light when the PPD conducted a Community Survey last year. The Survey revealed that more was needed to reach Princeton’s immigrant population. In spite of going door to door and having the survey available in Spanish and English, the response was poor. Since then, the department has conducted neighborhood meetings, instituted bike patrols, increased foot patrols in the central business district, pursued more directed traffic enforcement, and has initiated several school-based security initiatives.

Building Trust

Last summer’s raid by ICE in Princeton resulted in an atmosphere of mistrust in the immigrant community. “We want residents to know that it was not local law enforcement officers who carried out this raid,” said Ms. Howard.

After the raid, two of Princeton’s Spanish-speaking officers spoke at St. Paul’s on Nassau Street to help calm fears. The PPD has several officers who are bilingual in Spanish and English and the Director of Human Services, Elisa Neira, is also bilingual.

Mr. Heilner points out that persons who believe they have been the victims of wage theft can come to either the Human Services Office at One Monument Drive (the former Borough Hall), the police, or LALDEF. The same intake form will be used by each.

“We are very happy with the way in which the police order drafted by Captain Sutter clarifies that local police officers are there to maintain public safety and enforce local laws not to spend time and resources tracking down the immigrant status of someone who has been here, say, for two decades and working as a family’s bread winner,” said Mr. Heilner.