03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fear, the Abuse of Power, and the Need for Immigration Reform

Many of my law enforcement contacts have been struggling with this issue: How can they effectively protect the public from real threats when a certain segment of their communities will not speak up out of fear of deportation?

There is abundant evidence of the negative impact that the outsourcing of immigration enforcement has had on community policing. Chiefs of police, sheriffs, and officers in the line of duty have all voiced concerns for the way local law agencies have been tasked to conduct federal enforcement. They are witnessing criminal elements target immigrants who, afraid of facing deportation (their own or that of a loved one), are more hesitant to approach the police. The result is the creation of an environment conducive to abuse. Even worse, the temptation to prey upon vulnerable populations sometimes goes beyond criminal elements, infecting the ranks of local law enforcement itself.

Take for example the recent conviction of Michael Anthony Higgins, a former state trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety who deprived several motorists of their civil rights. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), "Higgins was prosecuted for stopping motorists who appeared to be of Hispanic descent and stealing their money, usually in amounts of several hundred dollars." After an undercover investigation involving the FBI, the Texas Rangers, and officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety, enough evidence was gathered for the case to be prosecuted by the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of TX and the Civil Rights Division. In the DOJ's release, Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, stated:

"The defendant abused the power granted to him as a law enforcement officer to prey upon unsuspecting motorists for personal gain. He violated not only the law, but also public trust. I commend the Department of Public Safety and the FBI for their thorough investigation."

Reports of abuse in the Higgins case came directly from the victims, who were likely U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin. But what happens when the victims are too afraid to come forward, paralyzed by fear of deportation due to their immigration status? The abuse goes on unchallenged, our communities suffer the consequences, and our local law enforcement becomes corrupted.

Several police chiefs and other law enforcement officials have spoken up on this issue. They understand that the federal government's failure to fix our broken immigration system is causing unnecessary tension between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve. Furthermore, not taking a comprehensive approach is costly; already, several police localities have been sued for racial profiling, particularly in counties that are participating in the 287(g) program, which allows the Department of Homeland Security to grant immigration enforcement powers to local law enforcement.

Not fixing our system leaves the door open for more abuse like the kind Higgins engaged in, or worse. Congress and the Obama administration need to start working on comprehensive immigration reform now rather than continue to make the job of our local law enforcement officials harder. With reform, those currently afraid of reporting crime and abuse will be able to step into the light, and all our communities will be safer as a result.