San Francisco passed an important law in 1989 prohibiting local law enforcement officers from assisting in the enforcement of federal immigration laws. This law is now under direct attack by the proposed “CLEAR Act,” a Republican-sponsored bill currently making its way through Congress. Law enforcement agencies, mayors and city councils nationwide have voiced their strong opposition to the CLEAR Act. But San Francisco’s officials have been silent. What are they waiting for?
The Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal (CLEAR) Act would require state and local police officers to enforce immigration laws or lose federal funding. The Act was introduced by Representative Charles Norwood (R-GA). Its companion Senate bill, the Homeland Security Enhancement Act (S. 1906), was introduced by Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
The CLEAR Act is terrible public policy. Turning local police into immigration agents would undermine public safety. The CLEAR Act would require police to enforce federal immigration laws, thereby diverting essential state and local resources from enforcing criminal laws. The Act would dramatically discourage immigrants from reporting crime or talking to police, eroding relations between immigrant communities and law enforcement, and interfering with efforts to solve non-immigration related crimes. What undocumented battered woman would call the police knowing she will end up being deported? What undocumented witness to a crime would be willing to come forward? The Act would also increase racial profiling and the likelihood of false arrest and detention.
Recognizing these concerns over a decade ago, San Francisco wisely barred local law enforcement from assisting with the enforcement of immigration laws. A number of other cities with large immigrant populations followed San Francisco’s lead.
In fact, CLEAR is opposed by an unusual coalition of law enforcement, immigrant groups and civil libertarians. But Republicans, not content to wait for the controversial CLEAR Act to pass on its own merits, have resorted to trying to tuck its key provisions into other bills. Just recently, Representative Tom Tancredo (R-CO) offered the CLEAR Act as an amendment to the Homeland Security Appropriations bill (H.R. 4567). The amendment was defeated on June 18, 2004. But the CLEAR Act remains on the horizon, and other amendments designed to sneak its provisions into law are likely.
Not surprisingly, the Department of Justice under John Ashcroft has been a big part of the problem. In 1996, DOJ issued a legal opinion confirming that “State and local police lack recognized legal authority to stop and detain an alien solely on suspicion of civil deportability.” Following 9/11, however, the DOJ enlisted local officials in the detention and arrest of suspected violators of immigration laws. In 2002, the DOJ reversed its longstanding position and concluded that states had the “inherent authority” to enforce civil immigration laws.
Many localities objected and responded to the new DOJ position by passing laws prohibiting cooperation with the federal government in the enforcement of immigration laws. The CLEAR Act is a direct attack on non-cooperation laws, including San Francisco’s.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the country have formally opposed the CLEAR Act. In California alone, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Newark Police Department, Salinas Police Department and Arroyo Grande Police Department have signed onto a letter to Congress formally opposing the CLEAR Act. Other police and sheriff’s departments have done the same, including Baltimore, Boston, Seattle and Kansas City, to name a few. The San Francisco Police Department has not taken a formal position on the Act.
Municipal governments have passed resolutions condemning the CLEAR Act. The list is long and includes the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Mayors across the country, including the Republican Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, have formally opposed the Act. San Francisco’s Mayor and Board of Supervisors should do the same.
Newspaper editorials throughout the nation have condemned the CLEAR Act. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial page has remained silent. The Chronicle has not even reported on the CLEAR Act, except for one passing reference in an article listing proposed immigration laws.
San Francisco passed a smart law in 1989 that was a model for progressive cities nationwide. The law, as with many other progressive local policies, is under attack by right-wing members of Congress. San Francisco’s Mayor, Board of Supervisors, law enforcement agencies and newspapers should speak up and condemn the CLEAR Act before it’s too late.