Scott MacKay Commentary: Don't Turn Local Cops Into Immigration Enforcers

Feb 24, 2017

Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steve Pare doesn’t want city police used as deputy immigration  agents. RIPR Political Analyst Scott MacKay says Pare’s stance makes sense.

President Donald Trump is proposing to radically change federal and state policies on immigration. In essence he is shifting policy from finding a path to citizenship for law-abiding illegal immigrants to an emphasis on deportation.

Whatever one thinks of Trump, his plans are consistent with what he said during his successful campaign. He proposes building a big wall on the nation’s Mexican border and hiring 10,000 more immigration agents and 5,000 new border patrol agents. Homeland security officials have been directed to enlist local police departments in the increased deportation of undocumented immigrants.

The federal government wants to train state and local law enforcement officers to perform functions of immigration officers, such as detaining and investigating immigrants here illegally for deportation.

Pare has wisely decided that this extra burden is not something Providence police should take on. City residents should applaud this stance for many reasons. The capital city’s police department is stretched thin already – the number of cops is down by 100 or so from several years back. Citizens on the leafy East Side complain about burglary and property crimes. Neighborhoods on the South Side are wracked by gangs and gun violence. It seems foolish to add immigration to the long list of priorities already faced by police.

Do stressed city taxpayers want their cops to focus on combating crime or wasting time wading into the complicated and murky area of prosecuting undocumented immigrants?

Under Col. Hugh Clements, the city police department has done a better job building bridges to minority communities. Turning cops into immigration enforcers can only fray those fragile relationships.

U.S. Attorney Peter Neronha largely agrees with Pare. In a recent interview with Rhode Island Public Radio, Neronha criticized Trump’s plan to hire 10,000 new customs agents to focus on immigration. “If I had 10,000 additional law enforcement agents, I wouldn’t use them on immigration.”

Instead, Neronha said, they should be sent to combat violent crime and gun murders in such cities as Chicago, Baltimore and New Orleans.

Rhode Island isn’t overrun with illegal immigrants or refugees. Those that are here are not straining the state’s budget. A recent Providence Journal report showed few benefits are given to those newly arrived. The undocumented are not eligible for many safety net benefits, such as Medicaid and Obamacare health insurance.

One illegal immigrant collecting state benefits or sending their kids to school is too much for those on the anti-immigrant side of the debate. What many of them fail to realize is that our new immigrants, many of them Spanish-speaking, are making economic contributions. According to a new report by New American Economy, an immigration think-tank founded by former New York Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other business and immigration experts, immigrants in Rhode Island bring benefits. There are an estimated 137,000 immigrant residents in Rhode Island, about 27,000 of them undocumented –about thirteen percent of the state’s population. (Massachusetts and Connecticut also have roughly the same percentage of immigrants as Rhode Island).

Immigrants living in Rhode Island paid almost $337 million in state and local taxes and represented $3.6 billion in buying power. Half the state’s software developers are foreign-born, as are half the state’s chefs.

Assimilating immigrants isn’t easy. It never has been. There was practically no such person as an illegal immigrant until the 1920s, when a conservative backlash after World War I limited immigration, especially from such southern European countries as Italy and Greece. Immigrants from Ireland, Italy, French Canada and Portugal were once widely discriminated against. Rhode Island was once infected with virulent tribalism and anti-immigration hysteria. Now, generations later, largely due to education and inter-marriage, representatives of these  European immigrant groups get along well. They have forged the modern Rhode Island culture and economy.

Since colonial times, Rhode Island has been a place of religious tolerance and acceptance. It’s sad that in the 21st Century some want to change that legacy. It’s beyond ridiculous to divert our police officers to act as immigration agents. Let them concentrate on fighting the violent criminals and drug dealers who threaten us and our children.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our 'On Politics' blog at