Mayra Figueroa — a naturalized U.S. citizen, community organizer and licensed driver — had no reason to fear being arrested, no need to worry about deported.
Then she was pulled over by a Houston police officer, who told her he found it suspicious that a Latina was driving a late-model car. The first thing the officer requested? Figueroa's Social Security card, as proof of citizenship.
Until now, few local police and sheriff's departments wanted any part of enforcing federal civil immigration laws. They had their hands full with local crime — and needed witnesses and victims to work with them without fear.
But as local governments feel mounting frustration over illegal immigration, that hands-off attitude is disappearing. More than 100 local law enforcement agencies — including Los Angeles and Orange counties in California and Maricopa County in Arizona, which includes Phoenix — have begun or are waiting for training to help the Department of Homeland Security root out illegal immigrants and hand them over for deportation.
Advocates say the training beefs up the power of the overworked Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency. Detractors say it will discourage millions of immigrants from reporting crime or cooperating with police investigations. They also cite evidence of poor training and overeager cops, like the one who questioned Figueroa.
Training program grows
The ICE training program began 12 years ago in 1996, but had only one taker until 2002, when political pressure began to mount to fix the illegal immigration problem. Now 41 law enforcement agencies are trained, and 92 more are waiting in line.
Even in places where police departments have resisted enforcing immigration laws, elected officials and local governments have passed or are considering similar policies.
In Harris County, which includes Houston, sheriff's deputies routinely check the immigration status of anyone booked into the county jail.
In New Jersey, the Attorney General ordered police to ask arrested suspects about their immigration status. In Minnesota, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed an executive order requiring state agents to enforce immigration law.
"When my deputies come across illegals, they arrest them — even on traffic violations," said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. "People ask me why I am taking this on? The last I heard, crossing the border is an illegal activity. I took an oath of office to enforce the law, so I am enforcing the law."
But some experts say it could spell the end of cooperating with police in immigrant neighborhoods.
"People are very, very fearful of interaction with law enforcement, said Susan Shah, with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit. "Even people with legal status, whose families may have mixed immigration status, now have a fear of opening the door."
That fear has been exacerbated by accounts — some rumored, some real — of people being turned over to immigration officials after being stopped for minor offenses such as traffic violations and loitering, or after going to police to report a crime.
In Newark, N.J., a freelance photographer who stumbled upon on a dead body in an alley and reported the discovery to police was detained and asked about his immigration status.
In Falls Church, Va., staffers at the Tarirhu Justice Center, which works with immigrant victims of domestic abuse, say they are fielding calls from women who have been assaulted, yet refuse to go to police.
"When there's confusion about what policy applies to you and when it does, the safe course of action is to avoid authorities altogether," said Jeanne Smoot, the center's director of public policy.
Immigrants become 'soft targets'
In Durham, N.C., police recently investigated a string of robberies targeting Latino immigrants, who the thieves saw as "soft targets" because they'd be reluctant to call police.
Only after officials reassured local residents that they would not be reported to ICE did they get the information needed to solve the cases, said Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez.
"If people are not reporting crimes, we don't know what is happening out there. It puts all of the community at risk," said Lopez.
Even so, the Durham police department does check the immigration status of anyone arrested, and has since been approved for the federal training program.
Such confusing, sometimes contradictory, policies and programs are only heightening immigrants' fear and mistrust, say immigrant advocates and community activists.
Mayra Figueroa, the woman stopped in Houston, agrees.
"I have been living here for the last 17 years, and to have an officer stop me for no reason and ask for papers, it made me feel like he didn't think I belong here," said Figueroa. "It makes people feel that anytime that something happens to you, you can't call police."