A new report by researchers at Whitman College in Walla Walla calls into question the usefulness of a program used in Benton and Franklin counties that uses fingerprints taken during arrests to identify illegal immigrants.
U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement's Secure Communities program is intended to prioritize the deportation of undocumented criminals -- and violent felons, in particular -- to make communities safer, but the report claims the effect in the Tri-Cities has been to make Latinos more reluctant to report crimes because they fear being deported or racially profiled by police.
"Undocumented status, recent immigration, previous negative experiences with law enforcement or immigration enforcement, and difficulty conversing in English were factors that amplified Latinos' discomfort contacting the police," the report said.
The report suggested that law enforcement agencies should make stronger efforts to raise awareness about Secure Communities through media that caters to Spanish-speaking residents, and that Latino leaders should make efforts to start dialogues with law enforcement about public safety issues.
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"A stronger, more active relationship between Latinos and law enforcement -- in which undocumented residents can engage with police without fear of arrest -- would enhance public safety for all of the Tri-Cities' residents and empower Latino community members to engage more fully in public (discussions)," the report said.
The report was part of a series of annual "State of the State of Latinos" reports produced by a Whitman College class taught by Paul Apostolidis since 2005.
Other reports in the series looked at cultural competency and how English language learners fare in Walla Walla public schools, and barriers to Latinos being elected to local and state offices.
For the Secure Communities report, students Madelyn Peterson, Daniel Merritt and Spencer May worked with immigrants' rights organization OneAmerica to collect public records from Tri-City police agencies and to interview Tri-City immigrants about their experiences with law enforcement officers.
They also interviewed Benton County Sheriff Steve Keane, Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim and Kennewick police Cmdr. Craig Littrell, who at the time was a captain in the department.
The report said each of the law enforcement representatives described having a positive relationship with Latinos in the community, and said the purpose of Secure Communities was to protect the community by deporting violent felons.
Lathim referred to the case of Gregorio Luna Luna -- currently on trial for aggravated first-degree murder in the May 2010 stabbing death of his ex-girlfriend-- as the kind of crime he believes Secure Communities will help prevent.
Luna Luna had been deported to Mexico on May 1, 2010, but he was back in Washington by May 23. Early the next morning, he allegedly stabbed Griselda Ocampo Meza in the chest in her Pasco apartment.
"'I understand that there's people that come here just trying to make a better life for their family and work and they don't cause us any problems, but, along with that comes anybody that wants to come along with them,'" Lathim is quoted as saying in the report.
While some of the Latinos interviewed said they trusted the intentions of police officers, many others were wary of contacting police because of police officers' connections with immigration officials, and they worried about the risk of deportation or racial profiling.
The students also interviewed immigration lawyer Tom Roach, who said Secure Communities isn't working the way it should and that people who have committed only minor offenses -- such as "unlawful recreational fishing" -- have been deported from the area.
Roach is quoted as saying in the report: " 'I mean, a guy burps and he gets thrown out of the country! We had a case here not too long ago where somebody didn't pay a traffic fine. They thought they'd paid it. They didn't pay it at all, five years ago, so there's a warrant for their arrest. So they get pulled over for a traffic fine or for speeding5 miles over, they (police) run their driver's license, and they find out that they got a warrant for their arrest. So they throw them in jail and five minutes later they're in the deportation process. That's how easy it is to get deported.' "
w Read the report at http://walatinos.org.