The New Orleans Police Department is drawing up rules that will effectively bar officers from cooperating with any aspect of federal immigration enforcement — a move that’s likely to irk top Louisiana Republicans, who have been sharpening their criticism of so-called “sanctuary” policies in the past few months.
The NOPD insists that it already does not target immigrants or assist with deportations. But the new rules are expected to address what immigrants’ rights advocates and some City Council members have described as confusing language in the department’s current written policies.
For instance, officers now are forbidden from questioning “victims of or witnesses to crime” about their immigration status, a rule drawn verbatim from a federal consent decree that Mayor Mitch Landrieu signed with the U.S. Justice Department in 2012.
At the same time, department policy states that all employees “shall cooperate with state and federal agencies” in matters pertaining to immigration enforcement. That directly contradicts the approach Police Superintendent Michael Harrison has said his officers are taking.
The proposed revisions have been reviewed by the Justice Department, which has pushed for wholesale changes in NOPD policies through the consent decree, a court-ordered plan for reforms.
The Police Department declined to release the proposed changes last week, saying Harrison had not yet signed off on them.
But Tyler Gamble, a department spokesman, said the new language “will definitely clarify” questions that have been raised about the NOPD’s dealings with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“In general, we’re not cooperating with ICE,” Gamble said, adding that the department no longer conducts traffic control for federal agents engaged in immigration operations. “The only reason we’d ever get involved in an immigration matter would be if (a suspect) had a pending criminal charge.”
The NOPD’s effort to distance itself from immigration enforcement comes amid a debate that has flared anew on Capitol Hill over whether the federal government should withhold funding from — or otherwise punish — scores of jurisdictions around the country that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.
The controversy has drawn fresh attention to New Orleans’ position on immigration matters — a stance that, not surprisingly, has made the city an outlier in the Deep South.
New Orleans already has drawn the ire of conservative lawmakers like U.S. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a gubernatorial candidate who has accused Sheriff Marlin Gusman of flouting federal law by refusing to honor immigration detainer requests at Orleans Parish Prison except for inmates accused of the most egregious crimes.
Gusman’s policy, which has been in effect since 2013, stemmed from a lawsuit filed on behalf of two men who were held behind bars on immigration detainers for months after their legal release dates.
The Sheriff’s Office’s written procedures say deputies “shall not initiate any immigration status investigation into individuals in Sheriff’s Office custody or affirmatively provide information on an inmate’s release date or address to ICE.”
Given the policies of the Sheriff’s Office and Police Department, “there can be no doubt that New Orleans and Orleans Parish are a sanctuary for criminal aliens,” said Jessica Vaughn, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit organization that advocates reduced immigration and greater efforts to return or jail undocumented immigrants.
New Orleans is by no means the only city that has come under fire. The Center for Immigration Studies recently identified 276 jurisdictions around the country it said are standing in the way of federal law by offering safe harbor to undocumented immigrants.
“When local agencies obstruct immigration enforcement,” Vaughn added, “they’re missing an opportunity to remove criminals and troublemakers from the country and the community.”
Last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican presidential hopeful, proposed charging local officials as “accessories” to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants who remained in the country unlawfully because of sanctuary policies.
“These sanctuary city policies make New Orleans’ officials partners in crime with illegal aliens who commit crimes in New Orleans,” Jindal said in a statement to The New Orleans Advocate. “The Louisiana State Police will continue working with ICE and during the course of investigations will verify an individual’s immigration status if they are not a U.S. citizen.”
“Our nation is a country of laws,” the governor added. “Individuals do not get to pick and choose which laws they will follow — and neither do elected officials.”
Vitter, meanwhile, has pushed for legislation that would block federal law enforcement funds from going to “sanctuary” cities.
“We need to change our stance that allows sanctuary cities to get away with being accessories to murder,” Vitter said in a recent address, referring to the fatal shooting of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco. Authorities said Steinle, 32, was gunned down by a Mexican laborer who had several felony convictions and had been deported five times before his most recent arrest.
The topic has been particularly fraught in New Orleans, a city that welcomed thousands of Hispanic workers — many of them undocumented — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Local advocacy groups repeatedly have accused ICE agents here of using discriminatory practices and carrying out regular immigration raids — claims federal authorities have denied.
The organizations also contend that New Orleans police have collaborated with ICE, pointing to several examples of undocumented immigrants ending up under deportation orders after ostensibly routine encounters with officers.
“Until we have a written policy and a public statement from NOPD, no one will really be able to feel ready to rebuild that trust and accountability in the New Orleans Police Department,” Jolene Elberth, an organizer with the Congress of Day Laborers, told New Orleans City Council members recently.
Those concerns have gotten a sympathetic hearing from city leaders, who worry that undocumented workers will be left more vulnerable to crime if they cannot turn to the police.
“In this instance, we have a situation where our local interests don’t fit with what the federal interests have traditionally been,” Councilwoman Susan Guidry said this spring during a meeting of the Criminal Justice Committee. “We’re talking about people in our community who won’t have confidence in our police force.”
Guidry expressed concern with what she called contradictions in the NOPD’s current policies. In particular, she pointed to Policy 428.4, which not only allows officers to exchange information with ICE regarding the immigration status “of any individual” but states that Police Department employees “shall cooperate with state and federal agencies and officials on matters pertaining to enforcement of state and federal laws governing immigration.”
“I find this policy to be a little bit confusing,” Guidry said. She said it claims to support “equal enforcement of the law and equal service to the public, and it speaks to encouraging crime reporting and cooperation from people. But at the same time, it talks about sharing information with ICE, and there is no limitation on that.”
The New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice has said the NOPD’s current policy was issued improperly in June 2013 “without the input of the community” or even the Department of Justice, which has ordered the Police Department to implement “bias-free” practices.
Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE’s New Orleans field office, declined to comment on the specifics of the NOPD’s immigration policy. In a statement, he said ICE “continues to work cooperatively with our local law enforcement partners throughout the country to develop policies and procedures that best represent all agencies’ efforts to uphold public safety.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.