MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
There's growing interest in having local and state police help enforce federal immigration law. Nearly three dozen agencies have joined a popular program at the Department of Homeland Security that trains officers and delegates these powers. Supporters say it makes sense to assist federal immigration agents who are understaffed and overwhelmed. But critics worry that programs like these undermine decades of community policing efforts in immigrant neighborhoods.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: In the past decade, thousands of immigrants have settled among the rolling hills of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, finding jobs in poultry processing, construction, and the service industry. When local police would find they'd arrested an illegal immigrant for some crime, they'd call Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
But Rockingham County Sheriff Don Farley says, often as not, federal agents were so busy that the immigrant would make bail and disappear before they ever showed up, and there was nothing Farley could do.
Mr. DON FARLEY (Sheriff, Rockingham County): When I have to respond to my community about this problem, I don't want to say, well, yes, I have a badge, but it doesn't work on immigration problems. It only works on speeding and cats in trees, and that type of thing. I didn't feel good at all about that.
LUDDEN: So, last year, Farley signed on to a Homeland Security program that lets his officers hold people on immigration charges. He sent five deputies for a five-week training course in immigration law. And these days, the routine at the county jail in Harrisonburg is different.
Unidentified Woman: And we'll be back here. We have to put this on you.
LUDDEN: Everyone booked here is asked their immigration status. Officers can take fingerprints and check them against the federal immigration agency database. And if there's no hit there, they can interview the suspect and investigate his legal status. If someone's deemed to be illegally present, the sheriff's office can then detain him and start the paperwork for the deportation process.
Sheriff Farley says since August, his force has detained 69 illegal immigrants.
Mr. FARLEY: We're not going out and pulling people off the street because they have a foreign look about them.
LUDDEN: Farley says when the program was announced here, he took heat from those who feared he was going to conduct random raids. Now that the program's in place, he has taken heat from folks upset because he's not conducting random raids. Farley says the bottom line is he only has so much detention space.
Mr. FARLEY: Someone that comes here and they are trying to provide for their families, they're here illegally, and I don't feel that's a harm to us. If someone wants to build me a 10,000-bed jail, then maybe I'll start looking at all the illegals, but that's not going to happen.
LUDDEN: So in addition to checks at the jail, Farley's officers focus on immigrants suspected of dealing in drugs and gangs.
Deputy Sheriff Corrie Bauserman drives across town, up a steep hill to a trailer park of mainly Hispanic families. He points to one beat-up trailer sprayed with layers of gang graffiti.
Mr. CORRIE BAUSERMAN (Deputy Sheriff, Rockingham County): Here we had MS-13, and then Sur 13 came in and tagged over top of it. And then Los Hombres…
LUDDEN: In theory, Bauserman has authority to check the legal status of anyone even without any criminal charges. In practice, so far, he's done it once. He says a gang member he knew to be here illegally kept being implicated in crime after crime, but the victims were afraid to press charges.
Mr. BAUSERMAN: I said this guy is a problem. He's associated with recruiting 12-year-old children and 10-year-old children. He's setting up the meetings; he's doing this; he's doing that. We need to get rid of him.
LUDDEN: Bauserman does not think his new powers make people avoid him. In fact, he says Latinos here are eager to help because they're often the victims of the crimes he targets. Not everyone's convinced.
Mr. RICK CASTANEDA (Chairman, Harrisonburg Area Hispanic Services Council): To me, it's just a matter of fear-mongering. It's just creating more fear.
LUDDEN: Rick Castaneda heads the Harrisonburg Area Hispanic Services Council. He says immigrants, even legal ones whose family members are undocumented, are more afraid to report crimes now.
Mr. CASTANEDA: And I've had situations where people have called me and said, you know, I had a thousand dollars stolen from me. I have an idea who did it, but I'm afraid to go to the police.
LUDDEN: Harrisonburg lawyer Aaron Cook says he appreciates that Sheriff Farley and his deputies exercise discretion. But he says other local police forces who also use the county jail may not. And since everyone at the jail is checked, Cook says long-time residents with jobs and families can be deported after minor infractions.
Mr. AARON COOK (Lawyer): Driving under the influence or petty theft. I've seen folks charged with reckless driving or driving without a license.
LUDDEN: Cook had one client he says was wrongly arrested when she was a passenger in a car accident. He got that charge thrown out, but because the woman's legal status had been checked at the jail, she was deported anyway.
Even within the law enforcement community, delegating immigration powers is controversial.
Mr. HUBERT WILLIAMS (President, Police Foundation): If it's an issue of resources, who has the resources, the cities or the Federal government? Give us a break here.
LUDDEN: Hubert Williams heads the Police Foundation, a research and training organization. He worries about the burden local agencies bear taking on this new responsibility, and he worries about racial profiling. Williams says studies show immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born, so he believes all this isn't so much about public safety as about politics.
Mr. WILLIAMS: Right now, it's being driven by impulse and emotions and fear of political backlash over the immigration problem. Over time, eyes will be opened, and people will give a lot more thought to the impact of this kind of decision.
LUDDEN: Maybe. But right now, the trend toward local enforcement is so strong, the Federal immigration agency, ICE, has just set up a new office to coordinate it. It's headed by a former North Carolina sheriff, Jim Pendergraph.
Mr. JIM PENDERGRAPH (Former North Carolina Sheriff): I just got off the phone a few minutes ago with a representative of the Florida Sheriffs Association. I get calls every day from another state.
LUDDEN: Pendergraph says there are a host of ways ICE is helping communities crack down on undocumented immigrant criminals, and new programs are in the works.
Mr. PENDERGRAPH: And I don't see it reversing at all. There's been too many people that have said that immigration is a federal responsibility. Immigration is all of our responsibility, and it can't - it can never be successful without partnerships with the state and locals.
LUDDEN: Pendergraph says more than 90 local agencies are on a waiting list to be trained in immigration enforcement.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.