Police officials across the country are voicing objection to the Trump administration’s immigration enforcement strategy, contrary to some large police unions representing the views of rank-and-file officers.
Sixty-one police chiefs and sheriffs, in both blue and red jurisdictions — from Tuscon, Arizona, to Garden City, Kansas, to Kern County, California, to Montgomery, Alabama, to Providence, Rhode Island — signed a letter Tuesday asking President Donald Trump to scale back his strategy, which requires their cooperation with federal authorities to crack down on undocumented individuals. The letter was first obtained by the Guardian.
The list of officials signing their name is striking, geographically, for a few reasons.
One sheriff, one lieutenant, and two police chiefs from Alabama — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ home state — added their signatures. So did officials from cities and counties in Arizona and Texas, states whose proximity to the Mexican border guarantees an uptick in immigration enforcement under Trump.
It wasn’t only smaller police agencies protesting. A police chief and deputy police chief in Seattle, Washington — one of the states that’s seen the most significant increase in undocumented individuals over the last decade — also signed their names. Police commissioners from Boston and Philadelphia signed their names, as did Texas officials from Houston, Austin, and San Antonio, and Ohio officials from Cincinnati and Columbus.
“We can best serve our communities by leaving the enforcement of immigration laws to the federal government,” the letter stated, adding that removing funding from sanctuary cities “would not make our communities safer and would not fix our broken immigration system.”
In the executive order signed five days after he took office, Trump threatened to withhold federal funds from so-called “sanctuary cities” — jurisdictions where law enforcement won’t give up undocumented residents to the feds, unless they have committed a serious crime. Trump’s order also reinstated both the 287(g) program and the Secure Communities program, seeking to boost cooperation between local cops and federal immigration authorities to target, detain and deport undocumented individuals.
Many of the officials who signed the letter are involved in the Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force, launched under President Obama in 2015 to develop “commonsense” approaches to the issue. “When immigrants feel safe in their communities, we are all safer,” said Ron Teachman, who was police chief in South Bend, Ind., when the task force was created.
However, their objections may not necessarily align with the wider police community.
Some of the nation’s biggest police unions, claiming to represent the views of rank-and-file officers, have voiced support for Trump’s aggressive immigration strategy.
The Fraternal Order of Police — the nation’s biggest police union boasting a membership of 330,000 — released a statement immediately after Trump’s executive order on Jan. 25, saying they “welcomed” his directive on sanctuary cities, noting that earlier draft solutions called for an “unequivocal end to all federal grants” for noncompliant jurisdictions, which the FOP had “real concern about.” “Today’s order makes the suspension of federal grants discretionary,” the release added, “and we support this balanced approach.”
Similarly, the National Association of Police Officers released a statement noting their long-standing opposition to the concept of sanctuary cities. “Sanctuary policies in cities and jurisdictions across the country make it difficult for law enforcement to effectively protect the communities they serve from violent criminal aliens.”
The tension is also evident at the local level.
Last week, New York City Police Commissioner James O’Neill issued a memo reminding NYPD officers that they should not arrest or detain individuals for immigration violations, but that the force “does and will continue to honor federal immigration detainers when there is a risk to public safety.” But rank-and-file NYPD officers may not feel the same way, according to comments by Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association (the NYPD’s union) recently on John Catsimatidis’ AM-radio program.
“Make no mistake about it: The members of law enforcement in the NYPD want to cooperate with ICE,” Mullins said. “I speak to cops every day. They want to cooperate with ICE, they want to work with fellow law enforcement agents. There is a point where there is a moral obligation, and as the chief law enforcement officer of the city, you yourself have to be able to follow the direction of law.”
The 287(g) and Secure Communities program were both halted under the Obama Administration amid widespread criticism that they pulled low-level criminals or law-abiding noncitizens into the dragnet. They were ultimately replaced by the Priority Enforcement Program, which specifically targeted convicted criminals for deportation.
CORRECTION (March 7, 3:55 p.m.): A previous version of this story incorrectly conflated the 287(g) program and the Secure Communities program. Both are programs that aim to coordinate local and federal authorities to enforce immigration law, and were phased out or weakened during the Obama Administration.