As police departments struggle to recruit and retain officers, some look to a previously untapped pool of applicants to fill job vacancies.
States, including California and Colorado, have begun to pass laws that would permit noncitizens who are authorized to work in the U.S. to become police officers, while others, such as New Jersey, mull similar legislation. The measures make recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program eligible for law enforcement work.
Beneficiaries of the DACA program have historically been barred from holding jobs in law enforcement because of various provisions in state laws.
The DACA program, which provides protections against deportation for people who arrived in the United States without legal status before turning 16 and who have lived in the country continuously since at least 2007, has about 580,000 active recipients in the United States.
Christian Alberto Mendoza-Almendarez, 30, is among them. He was brought to the U.S. at age 7 after his family fled Mexico’s drug cartels.
He has wanted to be a police officer since he was a boy watching his father patrol the streets of San Luis Potosi, Mexico. But his immigration status makes him ineligible in Texas, where he serves as a neighborhood liaison with the Austin Police Department.
He's thinking about moving to California or Colorado to fulfill his dream.
“We’re not here to change the requirements,” he said. “These people have what it takes to become a police officer.”
Before changing its law last year, California required that police officers, or peace officers, be U.S. citizens or permanent residents who were eligible for and applied for citizenship.
In Colorado, DACA recipients previously could not legally carry firearms. Colorado’s new measure, which was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis in April, does away with that prohibition.
"It's a smart policy, especially with fewer and fewer people wanting to go into law enforcement," said Art Acevedo, the interim chief of police for the Aurora Police Department in Colorado, which has 71 open positions.
Acevedo, who immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba with his family as a young child and headed police departments in Houston, Austin and briefly in Miami, said a person’s nation of origin should have no bearing on their suitability for a career in law enforcement.
Supporters of similar measures have noted that noncitizens who are authorized to work in the U.S. can already serve in the military, making law enforcement work a natural extension.
Critics of such legislation, however, say careers in law enforcement should be reserved for U.S. citizens and that noncitizens should not be able to carry firearms or possess the power to arrest citizens.
Chapin Rose, a Republican member of the Illinois Senate, blasted the legislation that passed the state House and Senate but has not been signed into law, saying during a recent hearing that “there is a greater principle at stake.”
“It’s just a fundamentally bad idea,” he said during the hearing in May. “I don’t care where this individual is from. Australia — they should not be able to arrest a United States citizen on United States soil.”
Police departments across the country have been struggling to recruit and retain officers over the past several years.
The Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group, has attributed the decrease in staffing to “extreme stresses” caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and a decline in police officers’ morale, as well as protests and demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by Minneapolis police, among other issues. But others have attributed the decrease to calls for accountability and police reform spurred by Floyd’s murder, and to officers leaving for higher paying jobs in the private sector.
Joseph Farrow, chief of police for the University of California, Davis, led the effort that prompted the University of California’s development of the law in partnership with the state Legislature.
California’s bill, SB 960, which was introduced in February 2022 and signed into law in September 2022, removed a provision in state law that said a person had to be a citizen to be a peace officer and replaced it with a requirement that peace officers be legally authorized to work in the U.S. It took effect on Jan. 1.
Year after year, Farrow said he has encountered students through his work with the UC Davis Cadet Academy — a popular nonaccredited course offered once a year to those interested in a law enforcement career — who excelled in the program and wanted to be peace officers but were "prohibited because of a law in California that was enacted, some 50, 60 years ago."
He petitioned his bosses at the university to take up the issue and to bring it to the attention of state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat who sponsored the bill. Farrow said he testified in support of the bill before the state Senate and Assembly.
Skinner and Farrow both said that most lawmakers had been unaware of the decades-old provision before its removal. One of the biggest hesitations expressed by those who opposed the measure was over vetting the backgrounds of noncitizens, Farrow said, which he believed was a reasonable concern.
“We responded, basically, 'Yeah, that’s an issue,’” Farrow said. “And if we can’t prove identity and we can’t prove background and we don’t have enough information to make sure that the people that we’re hiring are people that would be good representatives of law enforcement, then they don’t get hired, just like anybody else.”
Like Farrow and others who publicly supported these laws, Staci Shaffer, a lieutenant with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado, said these measures didn't water down the requirements or lower the standards for employment. Qualified applicants must still undergo medical and psychological exams, pass fitness tests and attend the academy, in addition to satisfying other criteria.
Shaffer, who testified before Colorado lawmakers, said that she believed it was "draconian" to turn away a noncitizen authorized to work in the country who was otherwise qualified.
"Law enforcement, in my mind, we have a reputation problem," she said. "There's a reputation because of the actions of some officers." Shaffer said she would tell critics of these laws to "get over it." She said she suspected many law enforcement departments, including the Larimer County Sheriff's Office, which is majority white and majority male and has 68 open positions over several departments, could stand to diversify its ranks to better serve its communities.
DeLacy Davis, a retired police officer in New Jersey and a community policing expert, said he believes some of the opposition to these measures "is grounded in straight racism, no chaser. Period."
"I don’t think that we can draw clear lines in the sand and determine, 'Oh, you’re not a citizen, you can’t be qualified. You are a citizen, you must be a good person,'" he said. "The people who killed Breonna Taylor, the people who killed Tyre Nichols, the people who killed George Floyd, all of those were American citizens. I believe, in and of itself, that is a flawed argument — when we talk about citizenship as a basis for determining whether or not you can or cannot effectively police."
Laurence Benenson, vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, said the organization had fought for the passage of such laws for years. Benenson said staffing issues predate the pandemic, and that police departments across the country have faced difficulties in hiring qualified candidates for at least a decade, and, in some cases, in recruiting younger officers.
“We believe that hiring lawful permanent residents and Dreamers who work in law enforcement jobs is a common sense idea," and that offering these opportunities to people who "already are contributing in a number of other areas" will expand the pool of qualified applicants for law enforcement jobs, he said. "And then we’ll also have an additional benefit of helping those law enforcement agencies better reach communities that they work with, particularly in jurisdictions that have significant immigrant populations."
Mendoza-Almendarez agreed, saying that hiring DACA beneficiaries is a way for law enforcement agencies to put more “well rounded” officers on the force and to make inroads with immigrants.
“I think that’s one step in helping to increase trust with our undocumented community,” he said.
Farrow said his department is fully staffed and that he has recruited one DACA recipient under the new law.
“I think as time goes on, and more and more chiefs and communities understand that this law is there, and here’s the process to do it, I think it’s going to grow,” he said.
Acevedo said the Aurora Police Department was actively recruiting those now eligible for employment under the new law and that the first thing he did when the legislation passed was promote it on a local Spanish-language news station.
“We have started educating the community and we’re hopeful that we will end up getting good candidates,” he said.
Mendoza-Almendarez is among the first people Acevedo hopes to recruit. The two met when Mendoza-Almendarez was a teenager in the Austin Police Department's explorer program and remained friends.
The new opportunity is one he and other DACA recipients welcome, Mendoza-Almendarez said.
“If these people are willing to do so, why are we not allowing people to do that?”