Immigrant advocates sue Justice over crime database

Civil rights and immigrant advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in New York to challenge a post-Sept. 11 initiative by the Justice Department to enlist state and local police in the routine enforcement of federal immigration laws.

According to a release from the National Council of La Raza, one of the advocacy groups involved in the lawsuit, the groups allege that the Justice Department and the FBI have unlawfully entered information on civil immigration violations into a federal criminal database, the National Crime Information Center, which state and local police access millions of times each day to probe the background of everyone from individuals suspected of crimes to people caught violating traffic regulations.

"Co-opting state and local police to make immigration arrests undermines public safety and encourages racial profiling," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza.

The other groups involved in the suit are the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Latin American Workers Project, UNITE and the New York Immigration Coalition.

For years, cities across the country have refused to enforce federal immigration laws, arguing that immigrant communities would be less likely to help police investigate crimes if they thought local police officers might report illegal aliens to federal immigration agents. Many cities even became official "sanctuaries" for illegal immigrants, passing laws forbidding their police forces from reporting immigration offenses.

Whether localities have authority to enforce civil immigration violations--such as overstaying a visa--is a matter of debate among legal scholars. Criminal violations of immigration law have always been entered into the National Crime Information Center database and no one disputes that local police have the authority to make arrests for them.

Still, since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when it was revealed that several of the hijackers had overstayed visas, there has been considerable pressure on law enforcement agencies and members of Congress to boost efforts to catch illegal aliens.

Republican members of the House, for example, have introduced the Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act, which includes provisions that would make it easier for local police to work with federal agents on immigration enforcement, and boost incentives for local police to pitch in. A number of organizations representing local governments, including the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties, oppose the measure. Still, the Justice Department is already training Florida police officers in immigration law enforcement procedures in a pilot project that the department hopes will extend to other states.

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