NEW YORK - Civil rights and immigrant defense groups filed suit in a federal court here Wednesday to challenge a post-9/11 initiative by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to enlist state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws.
The plaintiffs are alleging that following the Sep. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) unlawfully entered immigration information about non-citizens into a federal criminal database -- the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database.
Its entries, "rap sheets" or criminal warrants and stolen property records, date back to the 1930s, and are routinely used by federal agencies to notify state and local law enforcement about people wanted for crimes.
"Co-opting state and local police to make immigration arrests undermines public safety and encourages racial profiling," said Raul Yzaguirre, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, one of the plaintiffs.
"It makes immigrant victims and witnesses afraid to report crimes and assist police investigations, diverts law enforcement resources from other policing priorities, and entangles untrained officers in the complexities of immigration law," he added in a statement.
The new practice departs from longstanding federal policy. Congress has strictly limited the power of local and state police to make immigration arrests by requiring them to, among other things, receive formal training in immigration law before they can undertake enforcement.
More than 60 local police and sheriff departments countrywide, numerous law enforcement organizations, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities have publicly opposed local police enforcing immigration law.
A bill before Congress that would give local police the authority to act on information from immigration officials has drawn strong opposition from police departments in some of the largest U.S. cities, including Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York.
The DOJ policy will do nothing to identify terrorists, and will serve only to disenfranchise and alienate the very communities whose assistance the government should be seeking, contends the San Francisco-based Japanese American Citizens League (JACL).
In Seattle, where 60 years ago police helped to round up Japanese immigrants during the Second World War, Officer John Ditto says aliens who "fear being arrested" will not approach him with tips about more serious crimes if the policy is left to stand.
"People would have one more reason to run away from me, and that's not something that I think I want to have happen," Ditto said in an interview.
State and local police routinely access NCIC data after stopping or arresting individuals in the course of their duties. The database is accessed about 3.7 million times each day, according to the FBI.
Civic leaders are calling for an end to what some contend is a return to McCarthy-esque government campaigns to detain immigrants in the administration's so-called 'war on terror'. (In the 1950s, the height of the Cold War, Senator Joseph McCarthy led a brutal campaign to uncover communists in the United States.)
The overwhelming criticism is that the DOJ system will prevent immigrant communities from coming forward with information that could be helpful in the fight against terror. The overwhelming fear is that thousands of immigrants will suffer unjust persecution.
Before 9/11, the FBI did not enter non-criminal information, such as immigration data, into the NCIC. Since then, senior administration officials have announced that information on more than 400,000 people with outstanding orders of deportation will be entered into the database to prompt state and local police to make immigration arrests.
An undisclosed number of people whom the government believes are not in compliance with "special registration" requirements -- directed at male immigrants over the age of 16 who are citizens and nationals of North Korea and 24 majority-Muslim countries -- will also be entered into the NCIC, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.
On Dec. 1 the Department of Homeland Security ended the annual re-registration requirements of 83,000 immigrants who had registered under the post-9/11 program. If now, almost a year after the first "registrations", immigrants are "out of status" they will be added to the NCIC.
Many critics contend that special registration and other new policies amount to racial profiling. In addition, "numerous reports by the inspector general of the DOJ have confirmed the infamous unreliability of INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) records," said former congresswoman Mary Rose Oakar, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
"Information is being disseminated to police all over the country, and will be used to detain immigrants, many of whom may have a legal right to be in this country," she added in a statement.
Ejaz Haider, a Pakistani working as a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., was detained earlier this year because he missed his "special registration" deadline.
"I did not know I was in violation of the policy. Brookings did not know I was in violation. My friends in the State Department did not know I was in violation," he wrote in a 'Washington Post' article Feb. 5.
Despite informing himself and calling authorities, "we could not understand the law," he wrote. "What hope can there be for the cab driver or the restaurant worker who doesn't have the leisure to discover the letter and intent of INS policies?"
Other plaintiffs in Friday's case are the New York Immigration Coalition, the Latin American Workers Project and the Union of Needle trades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE).
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