Durham Police Chief Teresa Chambers has won praise for reaching out to the city's burgeoning Latino population. She has attended Latino festivals and forums, supported the department's efforts to open up communication between police and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and has even enrolled in Spanish classes.
"She's making that extra effort," says Hilton Cancel, president of El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based advocacy group for Latinos in the Triangle.
But Cancel and others say hard-won trust between Latinos and the Durham police could be eroded by Chambers' failure to sign a "memorandum of understanding" clarifying her department's role in assisting a new U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) squad that's been operating in the Triangle for the past 18 months. Advocates want assurance that the stepped-up presence of the INS won't lead to widespread harassment of Latinos by local law enforcement.
"We definitely support their (INS) role in deporting or removing individuals who have committed felonies," says Andrea Bazan Manson, a Durham resident and executive director of El Pueblo. "But we are concerned about those that are innocent who might be caught into this."
The memorandum states that local police "shall not stop an individual on the street or pull over a car, when an individual/driver has not committed a violation, merely to find out whether the person can prove he or she is in the U.S. legally." It further stipulates that officers will not contact the INS without notifying the police chief, and that when foreign-born suspects are in custody, they will be guaranteed access to a lawyer and consular officials.
After a year of reviewing the document, Chambers still has not signed. Durham Police spokesman Lt. Ed Sarvis says the department is drafting its own policy, which, once enacted, will "assure that our police officers are not harassing people just because they have an accent."
The department's draft states that, "Under no circumstances should an officer imply or threaten the involvement of the INS unless there is reasonable suspicion of a violation of immigration law beyond an individual case of an undocumented person." At press time, leaders of El Pueblo had not seen the draft policy.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department is so far the only one in North Carolina to have signed a memorandum similar to the one backed by El Pueblo. In the Triangle, Latino advocates started with Durham because of the police department's track record of responding to the community's unique concerns about law enforcement. Campaigns are also under way to have agreements signed by police departments in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.
Called a Quick Response Team (QRT), the INS office temporarily stationed at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, is one of 45 such teams deployed to 11 states: Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. The INS created the teams in response to congressional complaints that the government was doing too little to find and deport foreign-born, undocumented criminals. (Within North Carolina, Charlotte and Winston-Salem are also home to QRTs.)
The new strategy, says an INS fact sheet, "focuses on removing criminal aliens, disrupting alien smuggling operations, minimizing document fraud, working with local authorities to prevent immigration-related crime in the community, and blocking employers' access to illegal workers." Five agents staff the local QRT. Between April 2000, when the office became fully operational, and January 2001, the squad apprehended 407 people--70 percent of them recent arrivals from Mexico.
Tom O'Connell, the agent-in-charge, says his team is here to root out hard-core criminals, not run-of-the-mill illegals. But Latino advocates fear that the expanded INS presence will discourage local police from making that distinction.
"We get calls from people that have been detained in jail for several days as their status is being checked, and the person does not know why he or she is being held," says Bazan Manson, of El Pueblo. "Since the QRTs have been here, that has increased."
Cancel, a retired 20-year veteran of the Indianapolis police, also worries that police chiefs might not be providing enough oversight when it comes to aiding the INS.
If area police are going to call the QRTs, "we want the leadership to become involved, and not leave it to the rank and file officers," he says. "It should run up the chain of command."
Latinos are not the only ones concerned about the relationship between local police and the QRTs. Civil liberties organizations worry that the presence of the INS squad will encourage the practice of racial profiling.
"A main implication of having the INS team here is that people who are here legally may be presumed to be here illegally, based on the color of their skin and their accent," says Deborah Ross, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina. "And to the extent that local police cooperate with the INS, there might be violations of people's civil rights based on racial and ethnic stereotyping and prejudice."
Such worries don't stop at the Durham city limits. When the INS squad first arrived, the state ACLU--along with El Centro Hispano in Durham and the Workers' Rights Project of the N.C. Justice and Community Development Center--wrote to sheriffs and police chiefs across North Carolina to emphasize the line between local and national immigration law mandates.
"According to the INS, deployment of the QRTs is not intended to confer federal immigration authority to state and local law enforcement agencies," the letter said. "Local law enforcement agencies are not required to share information with the INS."
Perhaps the key concern for Latino advocates is that the QRT squad will discourage Spanish-speaking residents from turning to local law enforcement when they need help. Many recent immigrants come from Central American countries where police corruption is a fact of life. The Durham Police Department's outreach efforts have started a process of trust building--one that helped the community confront a wave of muggings and home invasions of Latinos in the late 1990s.
But the QRT is a trust buster, Bazan Manson says. "It's not unusual for us to talk to community members who say, 'Well, I don't know if I should go to the police now, even though I've been robbed, because I don't know what their role is in this. There's a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about the role of law enforcement now."
O'Connell insists that legal immigrants have nothing to fear from the QRT. "If you're referring to illegal aliens," he says, "if they're a witness or a victim of a crime, number one, the agency dealing with that is not required to call us." Besides, he adds, "the backlog in the office here is such that I don't have time to pick up every witness or victim of a crime--nor would I even do that."
Latino leaders say they'd rest easier if police departments would sign documents similar to the one submitted to Chambers a year ago. Such agreements would go a long way toward assuring foreign-born residents that local police are not becoming surrogates for the INS.
"It's about making sure that our communities feel safe and protected," says Bazan Manson. "And that they can go to law enforcement whenever they need to."