Sunday, September 25, 2005

NJ Attorney General Misconstrues Immigration Basics

The Princeton Borough Council is trying to pass an ordinance that will prohibit municipal officers (within the control of the Princeton council) from devoting its time and resources to mere civil immigration violations. The vast majority of immigration violations are not crimes. They are not criminal acts, they cannot be punished in a criminal prosecution, and the federal government does not take them to criminal court. Many are instead brought to immigration court on allegations that they have mere civil violations.

Civil violations are not criminal violations. An example of a civil violation is where someone is late paying a bill (I am not talking about an elaborate fraud where someone is intentionally stealing from someone with no intention to pay). Neither are criminal actions and although you can go to small claims court to get the money in dispute, nobody is going to arrest someone and throw them in jail over the issue.

By using mere civil charges, the immigration authorities have convinced the courts that they do not need to give a poor person appointed counsel -- many immigrants are forced to fight for their freedom without a lawyer. Courts have also been convinced that the government can take advantage of information that they obtain through most types of unlawful searches and seizures, with an exception for only the most heinous acts.

The Princeton Borough stressed the difference between civil and criminal violations in proposing a resolution that would order its municipal police not to devote its limited time and resources to arresting people on mere civil violations. It was careful to make clear that the police should devote its time in any situation where the immigration violations were criminal acts.

In a legal opinion dated September 6, 2005, the New Jersey Attorney General issued an opinion that immigration violations (even mere civil ones) must be enforced by municipal police. The rationale, however, suggests that the Attorney General does not understand the nature of civil immigration violations.

The opinion explains that the New Jersey Attorney General has powers to coordinate police response to criminal acts. That makes sense so far. But then, the Attorney General jumps to a conclusion that therefore, the Attorney General can coordinate municipal police in responding to immigration violations. That leap only makes sense for immigration violations that are criminal acts.

Therefore, the Attorney General's opinion just does not make sense. It is clouding what should be a clear issue: municipalities should be free to take whatever stance they want to regarding how much effort their police should spend on mere civil violations.

In Princeton, the local government has made an excellent decision to try to limit local police involvement in mere civil violations -- using local police to pursue mere civil violations scares away immigrants from reporting urgent, crucial information to help with crime-fighting. Immigrants are afraid of turning to the police to report crimes. Some who have reported crimes to the police have found themselves, absurdly enough, turned over to be deported for mere civil immigration violations.

If our country truly is going to fight crime and protect its communities, it needs to encourage immigrants to help police fight crime. One step is to encourage immigrants to talk to local police and know that they will not be arrested and deported for mere civil violations.


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