Police stand by operation

Immigration enforcement left to federal authorities, police say

By Mike Heine/The Week

(Published Nov. 9, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

Events occurring the morning of Aug. 8, 2006, sent shockwaves through Whitewater, the college town in Walworth County's northwest corner.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, local officers, county sheriff's deputies and officials from the Social Security Administration raided Star Packaging, searching for evidence of identity fraud and undocumented immigrants.

Arrested were the business owner, Allen L. Petrie, and 25 Mexican employees.

Since that day, members of the Hispanic community remain frightened by police and leaders of Latino groups have expressed outrage by the detention of people who were working one minute and facing deportation the next.

Police stand by actions

Whitewater police maintain they were investigating identity theft, and that only ICE officials investigated immigration issues. The agencies shared a search warrant to simultaneously conduct the investigations, Whitewater Chief James Coan said.

"We clearly separated the goals of the operation," Coan said. "Our focus was, and remains, the issue of identity theft and fraud and the issue of undocumented or illegal immigrants is the responsibility of ICE. We're trying as much as possible to clearly delineate the goals of the operation."

Petrie was charged with conspiracy to commit identity theft. He allegedly told employees to use fake names and Social Security numbers to maintain employment.

At least 10 employees, according to police reports, admitted to using false identities. The District Attorney's Office is currently reviewing the reports to determine if further charges are warranted against those employees.

ICE detained 25 employees suspected of living in the United States illegally.

Despite a rift in the community that's become more apparent since the raid, Coan said he fully supported the police actions taken that day.

"I stand by the operation," Coan said. "What I do regret is the feelings that are engendered in the community; the after-effects from it. It was not motivated by prejudice or bias or anything of that nature, but people believe or wish to believe that it was. That's not the case.

"We stand by what we did in terms of enforcing or investigating identity theft and fraud. It is just unfortunate that people have decided to believe that this was motivated by prejudice or bias on our part."

A profiling problem?

There are still those who believe the police department and lead investigator Larry Meyer, who in September retired from the force after more than 33 years, were steered by racial prejudices.

Both Petrie's defense attorney, Frank Lettenberger, and the Star Packaging attorney, Mark Olm, have accused Meyer of racial profiling.

So has David Duran, vice president of Latinos United for Advancement and Change.

"I think the officer initiated all of this and just decided to target Latinos," Duran said of Meyer. "He followed them to work and took their license plate numbers down, then harassed the employer to get information together to find a wrench that he could use to get rid of those particular Latinos."

He said the police department overstepped its bounds by using the identity theft investigation as a way to bring in immigration agents.

"They're going to have to really stop lying about the reasons and how they proceeded in their investigations," Duran said.

"The community and everyone agree that the police department is out to investigate those crimes that are crimes. Being undocumented is not a crime," he added. "It is not a felony. It is nothing more than an administrative citation."

The American Civil Liberties Union is conducting an investigation into the department to see if it overstepped its bounds.

According to the search warrant affidavit for the raid, Meyer said he told Petrie to not hire people with Social Security numbers that weren't their own.

"It's their attitude of overreaching their jurisdiction by even telling employers who they can hire or not hire," Duran said. "That's not the responsibility of the police department. That's the sole responsibility of federal immigration services and federal agencies, not the local police department.

"If it's identity theft, they should investigate identity theft and concentrate on that scope of the investigation and that's it, rather than calling in immigration."

Treading a fragile line

The statements from police and Latino leaders coincide with part of a report by the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law.

The report focused on new legislation that allows local police to access an immigrant's citizenship status via the National Crime Information Center database, an FBI-maintained computer network that contains criminal histories for millions of people.

Proponents say information in the database allows for increased authority in arresting and deporting suspected terrorists and immigration violators.

However, those opposed have warned that it "threatens to undermine the often delicate relationships of police departments with immigrant communities, divert scarce police resources from fighting crime and heighten the risk of civil rights violations such as racial profiling."

That's exactly why local officers stuck with investigating identity thefts and left the immigration issues to ICE authorities, Coan said.

Coan admitted that by sharing a search warrant and assisting ICE agents with arresting suspected illegal immigrants, it's possible the department was viewed as carrying out immigration enforcement.

"I can see why people in the community might think or believe that," he said, noting the department will often assist other police agencies when asked. "We do not actively investigate immigration issues. It's a federal responsibility.

"At the local level, we do not have the resources to devote to that, anyway. We have other kinds of issues without having to go look for illegal immigrants."

Coan did not waiver in his defense of Meyer's tactics or character.

"I strongly believe that Investigator Meyer was not motivated by any prejudice or bias or anything like that in conducting the investigation," he said. "He recognized there was a violation of law and was merely investigating and addressing those violations."

Mending the tear

What's done is done and fixing the torn fabric of the community is what's on a lot of people's minds these days.

The police department is continuing its Hispanic outreach programs, which were started more than four years ago, Lt. Lisa Otterbacher said.

The goal is to educate the Latino community about laws, police responsibilities and available resources in the city.

Hispanics need to learn the culture and the laws of America, but at the same time, American citizens need to understand why the immigrant populations came to the United States, said Margarita Garfias de Christianson, a bilingual specialist with Rock-Walworth Comprehensive Family Services.

"All of these people that were marching this year in spring and early summer are telling us that they're here working, they're here for a real life and they're hear to give to this country," she said.

The police know that, Coan said, and are there to make sure everyone has those opportunities.

"We still are a law enforcement agency," Coan said. "We have a moral obligation to enforce the law. When people are victimized, whether they're Caucasian or Hispanic, it's our job to enforce the laws of the land."

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