03/12/2012 10:50 am ET Updated May 12, 2012

Resisting Alabama Through Community Policing for Better Public Safety

As the Republican presidential contenders moved into Alabama and Mississippi, one local issue that they all appear to agree upon is the anti-immigration laws that have been bandied about in these states. Yes, Newt Gingrich might consider withholding deportation of 80-year-old grandmothers or DREAM Act students who join the military. Otherwise, he, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul do not favor any type of legalization program and either are for mass roundups or self-deportation of the estimated 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country. The message of these candidates is hardly one of embracing change and fails to recognize that we should be addressing immigration reform with a less hostile tone.

As the constitutionality of Arizona's SB 1070 is being heard at the Supreme Court, Alabama's HB 56 has reached the federal court of appeals, which temporarily has blocked some provisions, including one requiring Alabama officials to check the immigration status of children in public schools and others that make state crimes out of failing to carry documents proving legal residency status or harboring an undocumented immigrant. Just last week, the court also blocked two more provisions: one prohibiting courts from enforcing contracts with undocumented immigrants and another making it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to do business with the state. In spite of the contentiousness of these laws, Mississippi legislators are poised to copy the Alabama and Arizona examples.

While the legality of most of the local anti-immigration laws is questionable, the court ruling on the Alabama law left intact a controversial piece of HB56 that directs police officers to check the legal status of a person they stop or arrest if they have "reasonable suspicion" that person is in the country illegally. Although determining whether someone is undocumented by just looking at a person is virtually impossible, the message of the court is clear. When it comes to determining policing priorities, the state has a lot of autonomy. What to enforce, as opposed to what laws can be enacted, is a much stronger state's rights claim.

Lost in the hysterical atmosphere that pervades political conversations over the undocumented immigration challenge today is the fact that many jurisdictions are taking a different tact when it comes to law enforcement. Community policing policies (sometimes referred to as "sanctuary" policies) that instruct officers to refrain from asking crime victims or witnesses about their immigration status are in place in more than seventy cities and states, such as San Francisco and New York, as well as many law enforcement agencies, such as the New Haven and Los Angeles police departments. Thousands of other police agencies are reluctant to be viewed as partners in federal immigration enforcement. The motivation behind these laws and policies is simple: to encourage the entire community -- including immigrant members -- to trust and cooperate with the police to promote public safety for everyone. If this message is delivered successfully, its tone is an important, positive step in encouraging the civic integration of immigrant communities that stands in sharp contrast to the xenophobic undercurrent of measures such as Arizona's SB 1070, Alabama's HB 56, and the billions of dollars spent annually in border and interior enforcement of federal immigration laws.

The evolution of some relatively recent sanctuary policies makes clear that public safety is their main goal. In New Haven, Conn., in 2005, the police chief, government officials, and community leaders adopted two initiatives designed to make New Haven more welcoming and safer for immigrants, and to help police officers during interactions with immigrants. The police issued a general order outlining procedures for police to follow during encounters with immigrants, and the city began issuing identification cards to all city residents regardless of immigration status. Under the police department's general order, no distinction is made between documented and undocumented immigrants because they are all part of our community. In other words, the department would rather solve a homicide than worry about the immigration status of a witness or victim. As a result of the policy and follow-up initiatives, cooperation with police has increased dramatically and important strides have been made in getting the community to overcome its fear of the police.

The philosophy in Mesa, Ariz., is similar. The mayor and police officers were openly critical of Sheriff Arpaio's operations in their city because his actions undermined the police department's relationship with the immigrant community and set back the police department's efforts to build trust. While trust and community confidence is the goal behind the police department's policy of not inquiring about immigration status when it comes to crime victims and witnesses, the battle is difficult because the distinction between federal (ICE), county (Arpaio), and local (police department) law enforcement is confusing for the immigrant community. As one officer put it, "You're not sure if you ever gain the trust. Maybe you just lessen the mistrust." In spite of the tense atmosphere over immigration in Arizona, the Mesa police chief was determined not to adopt a policy that would damage the trust of a significant part of the community who were often victims or witnesses to crime. He held community meetings to encourage residents to discuss priorities and communication and consulted ICE. A new policy finally was adopted after seventeen revisions, followed by several months of officer training. Although the city takes pains not to be labeled a "sanctuary" for undocumented immigrants perhaps for political reasons, the focus of the policy is on criminals, not crime victims or witnesses, and the department engages in continuous outreach to the immigration community.

The adoption of community policing policies at a time when segments of our nation are in a frenzy over immigration is an important, bold statement of support for a nation of immigrants. Choosing sanctuary policies over policies of fear, like those embodied in HB 56, tells immigrants and the rest of us what type of community our leaders and law enforcement officials are choosing. The non-sanctuary choice is closed-minded, resistant to continuing changes that will only breed tension and threaten public safety. The choice of community policing, confidentiality, or "don't ask" is one of smart policing -- one that embraces change and encourages integration in the hopes of building a stronger, safer community. That choice also represents an important step toward avoiding the pitfalls of division, hate, and insular living that anti-immigrant state laws exemplify.