Ariz. Police Chief Weighs In On Immigration Law

The job of enforcing Arizona's new immigration law falls on local police. And police across the state are split on what they think of the law and how it will affect their jobs. Michele Norris talks to Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor about how police officers will deal with the new law.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The job of enforcing Arizona's new immigration law falls on local police, and police across the state are split on what they think about the law and its impact on their jobs.

Joining us now is Roberto Villasenor, the police chief of Tucson.

What do you think of this law?

Mr. ROBERTO VILLASENOR (Police Chief, Tucson, Arizona): It's going to cause some concerns for us. As a local law enforcement chief taking on the responsibility of federal immigration enforcement is something that we really don't have the resources to accomplish. And so that's one of the concerns we have. And also, I think that there's really not enough definition of what the requirements are going to be for local law enforcement in this regard, and there are some definitions that the governor has tasked our Arizona state agency, Arizona post to define what reasonable suspicion will look like in regards to this law.

NORRIS: That's one of the big questions. In a course of an encounter with the police, what constitutes reasonable suspicion, because, as I understand, the law says that you can't use race or ethnicity in making that determination?

Mr. VILLASENOR: Well, I think it says that you can't use race or ethnicity solely as the means of making that determination. I think that there will be an element of that that's looked at. And I think where a lot of people are getting confused is those instances where we stop someone for a criminal violation, we have some reason for that stop and that contact, but I don't believe that's what we're talking about in regard to this law.

This law is talking about in the course of any legal contact, as well as when we talk to a witness of a crime or when we talk to a victim of a crime. Those are legal contacts of law enforcement. Now we look at it in the context of those legal contacts.

If in the course of them, we develop reasonable suspicion that the individual we're talking with is illegally in the country, we are mandated to take enforcement action. That's where the questions are coming up is how do you develop that reasonable suspicion that they're in the country illegally if they're there talking to you just about being a victim of a crime.

NORRIS: If you're picking more people up now because you develop reasonable suspicion, what happens to them after that?

Chief VILLASENOR: It's going to depend on what the offense is they're picked up for. If this is something where we would arrest them under state or local statutes, then they would be arrested, taken to jail, and the way I understand the law, once they're released from that custody, they need to be turned over to federal authorities right away.

Or in the course of our investigation we determine that there's reasonable suspicion they're in the country illegally, we can contact the federal agencies to come down and take custody at that point or to transport them to their jurisdictions. Again, this is a non-funded mandated on us to transport where that takes our officers away from our primary responsibility, which is local law enforcement and local public safety, not federal immigration enforcement.

NORRIS: Are you concerned at all about losing the trust of the Hispanic community?

Chief VILLASENOR: I do have concerns in that regard. We have a lot of people that felt that we could bridge across that community through our interactions, and we felt that we have done that. And now I think this could put up a barrier that tears down some of those bridges.

NORRIS: You know, despite the confusion you're feeling on your part, do you have any sympathy for the Arizonans who support this measure, and the Arizonans support it in very large numbers right now, and people who feel that finally, something is being done about this problem with illegal immigration?

Chief VILLASENOR: I absolutely do. I understand the concerns that they have, and Arizona has been at the brunt of the immigration issue for quite some time. President Obama even stated that it's because of lack of action at the federal level, which has been the catalyst for this type of action.

NORRIS: Does this legislation deal with the root cause of the problem? Some say that it does not focus nearly enough on border security, border protection.

Chief VILLASENOR: I don't see that this really deals with the root cause of the border security issue. It deals with the symptom of a border that is far too easy to get across and allows too many people to enter the country illegally. And it puts the task of dealing with that issue on local law enforcement, which is not our primary goal or effort.

NORRIS: We've been speaking with Roberto Villasenor. He's the police chief of Tucson, Arizona. Thanks so much.

Chief VILLASENOR: Thank you for having me.

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