The recent decision that could make Herndon one of the first towns in the nation to train its police officers in immigration enforcement has left some residents and community leaders underscoring possible counterproductive effects.
And these effects, they say, could be felt by residents of legal and illegal status alike.
"For me, there’s obviously not a problem because I have my citizenship and I have nothing to worry about," said Francisco Gomez, a five-year maintenance specialist with the Town of Herndon who has lived in the United States for 26 years and been a U.S. citizen since 1988. "But a decision like this, it affects everybody, regardless of who you say it is meant for."
The Herndon Town Council passed the resolution last week that asks the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to provide some local police officers with training in immigration enforcement so that deportation proceedings could be started locally against criminals found to be in the country illegally. Herndon Police chief Toussaint Summers stated that it should only be used in dealing with dangerous violent criminals like gang members.
Gomez said he is worried that many people whom he knows are in the country illegally or in the process of getting their citizenship are going to "become very suspicious" of the police because of this potential authority, regardless of its intent.
"If [police officers] come by and pick up a gang member one day and a lot of people see that, and the next thing they know he’s on his way out of the country, they’re going to get an idea" of what authority the police would have under the ICE training, Gomez said. "If there are a group of guys looking for work somewhere in the morning and a police officer comes by and grabs one or two of them [for breaking a local ordinance], they’re going to question what will stop them" from starting deportation proceedings on them as well.
THE PROBLEM, according to local Herndon businessman Jorge Rochac who spoke against the resolution for ICE training at last week’s public forum, is that the Hispanic community will now have much more to fear in filing normal police reports if the Herndon Police Department has the authority to begin deportation proceedings.
"The thing that people don’t understand is that eight out of 10 families in this town are legal, but have that one person who is illegal or in the process of getting their citizenship who is living with them," said Rochac, who has worked in the past as a translator for the Herndon Police Department. "Do you think that these people are going to invite police officers into their home if they have Tio Mateo [Uncle Mateo] who is here without papers living in the basement?"
While several immigrant families of both legal and illegal status were contacted for comment on this story, all declined, citing apprehension over the issue.
Andres Tobar, executive director of Shirlington Employment and Education Center, a day laborer site in Arlington, underlined these concerns.
"It’s not like you have one illegal community here and the other is over there," Tobar said. "You might have a family who is here who have their citizenship, but there is one brother or sister who is in the process, and that family knows that they could be held responsible for that individual."
OF THE ESTIMATED 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, Tobar cited that about one quarter of them are in the process of attaining their citizenship, despite the fact that they technically may still be in the country illegally.
"Some of these people are in the transition to become legal, who have spent 12 years here paying taxes and being good citizens," he said. "The process takes an inordinate amount of time and these people all the while are holding their breath hoping that they don’t get picked up."
While Tobar said that he supports any effort to minimize crime and make communities safer, he said that the program may just end up overlapping previously existing structures within the legal system when it comes to felons who are found to be in the country illegally.
"The people who this program is singling out, the violent criminals, these are people who, if they’re picked up, they’re going to get deported," Tobar said. "The problem with bringing the training to a local level is that everyone who is here who is in the process of citizenship or is close with someone who may not be here legally is going to be apprehensive and there will be fears of deportation."
THE POSSIBILITY THAT the program, if adopted, could undermine community policing efforts in the Hispanic community is one that Summers previously acknowledged after making his recommendation two weeks ago to move forward with the request. In a January, 2004 town memo regarding the possibility of ICE training, Summers said that there were "potentially impacting issues" when it came to accepting the training and community policing methods.
Those impacting issues, he said, could be mitigated through proper understanding of what the program will entail.
"When people see change and they don’t understand it right away, it can make them apprehensive," Summers said. "The reality of the decision in this case is that we’re trying to serve everyone in the community by removing violent and dangerous criminals … and if people understand that, I don‘t think there should be a problem."
The principal element of any community policing program is trust, and Summers said that he believes that the trust that the Herndon Police Department has built in the Hispanic community will outweigh any possible suspicions.
ANY ATTEMPT at explaining the intention of the new authority will more than likely bypass most illegal immigrants, Rochac said.
"All these guys are going to understand is ‘police’ and ‘la migra’ [immigration enforcement]," Rochac said. "All these people who I have worked with who have testified in court on serious crimes in their community, there’s no way that they’re going to want to put themselves under the microscope like that again."
Several people who are in the country illegally are already feeling the effects of the training and are not leaving their homes as much as they used to, Gomez said.
"If they know that at any time they can ask you for your license and they can start to ask all these questions, they’re not going to want to speak with anyone," he said. "But that’s something that doesn’t make sense to me … no matter how tough you make the law, these people aren’t going to leave and go home."
"You can’t leave the life you’ve built here to go back to a place where you can’t live."