Law may stop police from some immigration checks

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May 26, 2003 // UPDATED 10:50 am - April 30, 2007
By: Bob Gilbert
Bob Gilbert

A proposed new ordinance would prohibit Minneapolis police from asking about an immigrant\'s visa status, even if that person is here illegally. The law, sponsored by 9th Ward City Councilmember Gary Schiff, would prevent city police officers from enforcing certain federal immigration laws.

The ordinance states that the city does not operate its programs to enforce federal immigration laws. Unless there is suspicion of criminal activity, police or any city employee cannot inquire if a foreigner is here legally. The proposed ordinance would supersede all conflicting policies, ordinances, rules and procedures.

Schiff\'s ordinance - which the City Council returned to him May 16 for modifications - is less controversial than it may seem. City police officers and state Public Safety Commissioner Rich Stanek do not oppose the no-ask standard, in part because it is already police policy.

\"The current policy is that we do not ask about their status anyway, so this ordinance isn\'t a big deal,\" said Insp. Rob Allen, commander of downtown\'s 1st Precinct. \"If you arrest a burglar and you run a computer check on him and it turns out he is in the country illegally, then we would notify INS. But in a traffic stop or as a matter of routine we do not ask people what their immigration status is. That\'s been our policy for about the last five years.\"

So why make a new law? Said Schiff, \"Passing the ordinance would make it permanent on the books, so that when Chief Robert Olson leaves at the end of his term, the people of Minneapolis are assured that the change in police administration is not going to result in a change of civil rights protection.\"

Schiff said immigration status was an issue recently in the licensing division, where city employees asked individuals for their green cards. He said the practice was clearly discriminatory, and the staff stopped it after he protested. A state Supreme Court decision grants equal protection of the law even to illegal immigrants, according to William Mitchell law professor Peter Erlinder.

Proponents of Schiff\'s ordinance say without such protection, a wedge is driven between immigrants and city police.

\"People with no immigration status sometimes are afraid to have any contact with the police,\" said Elizabeth Badillo-Moorman of Isaiah, a 60-church community organization. \"As a result, aliens are often afraid to call police to report crimes, may endure crimes against their own person and be unwilling to be a witness for fear of being deported.\"

Schiff said that immigrants live in fear of Minneapolis police kicking down their door, asking people for papers to prove they are not illegal and hauling them down to the Bloomington INS detention center if they have a visa violation.

Despite a lack of serious opposition, the council\'s Ways and Means committee sent the ordinance back to Schiff May 12, disappointing dozens of people from the Somali, Hmong and Hispanic communities who showed up to support it.

Ways and Means chair Barbara Johnson (4th Ward) objected to a provision that would subject city employees to discipline for any violation. Johnson said city employees should have been consulted first.

Schiff also included a section that granted a $1,000 settlement to any aggrieved party who successfully brings civil action against the city. \"We might just as well open the city checkbook,\" Johnson said.

Councilmembers Barret Lane (13th Ward) and Sandra Colvin Roy (12th Ward) voted with Johnson to return the bill to Schiff, who has since removed the objectionable sections. His next step is a public hearing before the council\'s Health and Human Services Committee on June 23. Schiff already has four members on that committee as co-authors - Paul Zerby (2nd Ward), Natalie Johnson-Lee (5th Ward), Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) and Don Samuels (3rd Ward).

The INS estimates that there are currently 60,000 illegal immigrants working in Minnesota. A recent University of Minnesota report stated that undocumented workers pay $1.56 billion annually in Minnesota state taxes and account for $3.8 billion of its gross national product.