There’s a lot of talk these days about police reform. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict, the issue has perhaps never been more pressing The Senate is currently considering the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
But while there is some partisan tension over what measures to take next, there’s an easy way to support police officers that shouldn’t be controversial at all: immigration reform.
An improved immigration system can unite our country. It can also help make our local law enforcement more effective and our communities safer. We must unite around the crucial task of bringing law-abiding, undocumented immigrants into the legal immigration system.
Over the course of my career with the Seattle Police Department, I experienced firsthand how policies and programs of inclusion help to build safe and healthy neighborhoods that help our entire city thrive. Whether through demographic advisory councils that channel community voices on public safety issues, through our Immigrant Family Institute that brings police and communities together to learn from each other, or our Women’s Refugee Institute, through which female officers empower women to become leaders in the community, our commitment to engagement built trust with our immigrant communities, strengthening both perceptually and empirically the public safety of our city.
After nearly 30 years in law enforcement, I can tell you that police want to do what’s right for our communities. But we are often inhibited by policies that don’t work. A major problem with our current system, for example, is that undocumented immigrants don’t feel comfortable calling law enforcement for help or reporting crimes.
Consider Wilson Rodriguez, a father of three who called 911 in 2018 to report someone possibly attempting to break into his home. He was put into ICE custody. Stories like these silence others like him. But law enforcement can best serve our local communities when we are able to build trust with the people we serve.
Under our current system, the injured suffer without medical care, case-breaking tips on violent criminals are never supplied, and underground drug trafficking and other enterprises continue to thrive.
Federal authorities should permit undocumented immigrants already living and working in the U.S. to apply for a legal, provisional status while they work to earn permanent residence. Most immigrants would “come out of the shadows” if this were an option. And truly dangerous criminals could no longer use the fear of deportation to threaten them into silence.
This reform would also allow members of law enforcement to focus their time and resources on these dangerous criminals—those bringing drugs, guns and violence into our communities. Most law enforcement should not be tasked with apprehending and removing immigrants who have no criminal background.
We know the statistics that show that undocumented immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens. And yet, the task of identifying illegal immigrants has, in recent years, trickled down to members of state and local law enforcement, whose main job should really be the safety of their communities.
Consider that in 2018, U.S. attorneys prosecuted more immigration violations than drug-related crimes or violent crimes. What does this say about where current policy has pushed our priorities?
Moreover, this legalization process would benefit our cities’ economies. Mass deportation of the 11 million undocumented workers currently in this country would not only be impossible but harmful to American citizens. Many jobs in agriculture, food processing, transportation and construction are filled by undocumented immigrants because these businesses can’t find enough U.S. citizens to work there, and there aren’t enough permanent visas or guest worker visas being offered to hire immigrants legally. A report by Scientific American detailed the efforts to which these businesses, like larger farms, are going to attract legal employees. Even as they offer higher wages and benefits like 401(k) plans, health insurance, and subsidized housing, it’s not enough.
Replacing these illegal pathways for immigration with legal ones will help local businesses hire legal employees. And it has long been known that jobs deter crime.
Law enforcement should be supported in treating all people with dignity and compassion and in focusing on what we know will make our communities safer. Reforming our immigration system by offering a path to legal residence will help local law enforcement build positive, productive relationships with the communities they serve.
Law-abiding immigrants already living and working in the U.S. should be given the opportunity to legalize their status after meeting stringent requirements, like paying taxes and fines and passing criminal background checks.
We are not divided on this issue, nor should we be. It’s win-win. Let’s make it happen.
Carmen Best served as the chief of police in Seattle for 28 years.
The views in this article are the writer’s own.