Five men fishing. That's the new focal point in our community over the immigration debate that continues to play out in our nation.
The Hall County Sheriff's Office has begun enforcing a new initiative known as 287 (g) that requires local law enforcement officials to turn over to federal immigration officials anyone who is arrested and lacks proper documentation.
The law was supposed to be enforced some time back but it took awhile for the feds to hook up the database computers deputies use to check the legal status of those arrested. Now that the equipment is up and running, Sheriff Steve Cronic and his staff are enforcing the statute by checking documentation and informing the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency when an arrestee does not have legal status.
Such was the case for five Mexican migrant workers who were picked up for fishing without a license April 5 at Wahoo Creek by a Department of Natural Resources officer. When they could produce no legal identification, they were booked and found to be in the country illegally, then turned over to the ICE. All five now face likely deportation, all because they were fishing without a license, hardly a crime that threatens society.
But the incident that led to their arrest isn't the real issue. Cronic and his deputies are merely applying the 287 (g) initiative as required by the federal government, no matter what charge may have led to the original arrest.
Local immigration lawyers Arturo Corso and David Kennedy claim that law officers are targeting Hispanics and running them through the ICE process unnecessarily. They believe the 287 (g) requirement should apply only to those who commit more serious crimes, such as drug offenses and violent crimes.
"There's no way five people fishing in the middle of the day would cause anybody alarm or concern," Corso said.
"My guess is there are some officers out there who are using this program to harass immigrants," Kennedy said.
Cronic and his deputies are in a no-win position when it comes to enforcing 287 (g). If they ignore it, they aren't complying with federal law. If they only apply it to those whom they feel are serious criminals, they are picking and choosing which laws to enforce, which is not their job. But if they do what the law requires, as in the case of the fishermen, they are accused of targeting Latinos.
We don't envy Cronic for the dilemma. His department knows that keeping strong relations with the Latino community is important, and that all local residents, regardless of their nationality or ethnicity, should be able to count on their protection. To that end, Cronic says the 287 (g) statute is only being applied to those arrested and not witnesses or other complainants. He also says his department monitors the record of those who are pulled over, cited or arrested to check for patterns that could be considered profiling.
Local attorney Joe Diaz told The Times he would like to see Cronic's department apply discretion to the law. But how can a sheriff do that without making up his own laws? Once someone is arrested for whatever reason and turned over to the ICE, it is a federal matter and not up to local jurisdiction.
"We're not judges and it's not our place to be judges," Cronic said. "When you do that, it's a slippery slope you go down. It's not something that should be determined at our level."
Though we sympathize with the attorneys' concerns and their attempt to protect those who lack any kind of legal safety net, we agree with Cronic. The potential for abuse in either direction is too great when law enforcement officers are urged to make up their own minds as to who should and shouldn't be arrested. True justice can only be achieved when the law is applied fairly and without prejudice to everyone.
The whole debate, once again, stems from the key problem involving immigration: Local law enforcement is asked to do what federal officials and lawmakers seem unwilling or unable to accomplish in a more effective way.
For years, Congress has been vilified by us and others for failing to craft a sensible, comprehensive plan to better deal with illegal immigration. Most agree that it has to start with stronger border enforcement to keep migrant workers from crossing without documentation. Porous borders have created a large and shadowy underclass frequently exploited by employers and unable to seek protection from the law. No country can allow that to continue, for the sake of immigrants or existing residents.
Once the border is secure, then a plan to deal with those who are already here, whether that be deportations or a guest worker program, is the next step. This is where the differing points of view over the issue split ways, even if they agree on border security.
But whether you are for or against increasing legal immigration, any and all reform has to come from the federal level. Failure to fix a national problem that way merely shuffles it to state and local governments and their law enforcement officers. That results in piecemeal legislation that deals with the symptoms of illegal immigration, often forcing migrants to move to a different town or state. That doesn't make them any more legal, nor solve the problem; it just passes the buck to someone else.
This is an election year, our next best chance to choose leaders to Congress and the White House who will act decisively on this issue. If our new leaders are no more proactive than those already in place, we'll continue to see more burden put upon local sheriff's and police departments who could be using their resources for other concerns.
But until that happens, it's up to Cronic and other local leaders to apply the laws they're given. They cannot be asked to enforce the law in some cases and not others. And they must continue their own outreach to the Latino community to ensure all residents that only those who break the law will come under the scrutiny of the 287 (g) statute and federal agencies.
It's a fine line to walk, and not the ideal way to address immigration. But until Congress acts to solve the issue in a more decisive manner, it's the best anyone can do.