Congress defined our nation’s immigration laws in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) (8 U.S.C. §§1101 et seq.), which contains both criminal and civil enforcement measures. Historically, the authority for state and local law enforcement officials to enforce immigration law has been construed to be limited to the criminal provisions of the INA; by contrast, the enforcement of the civil provisions, which includes apprehension and removal of deportable aliens, has strictly been viewed as a federal responsibility, with states playing an incidental supporting role.
Congress, through various amendments to the INA, has gradually broadened the authority for state and local law enforcement officials to enforce immigration law, and some recent statutes have begun to carve out possible state roles in the enforcement of civil matters. The legislative proposals that have been introduced, however, would appear to expand the role of state and local law enforcement agencies in the civil regulatory aspects of immigration law (i.e., identifying and detaining deportable aliens for purposes of removal).
Alien Criminal Apprehension Program
The Alien Criminal Apprehension Program (ACAP) was established in 1991 by the former INS. Through ACAP, criminal aliens are identified by immigration officials after they have been notified by state and local law enforcement officials. Upon an encounter with an immigrant whose immigration status may be in question, state and local law enforcement officials notify immigration officials, who determine the immigrant’s status and, if applicable, take the immigrant into federal custody.
Although there is quite a bit of debate with respect to state and local law enforcement officers’ authority to enforce immigration law as a matter of practice, it is permissible for state and local law enforcement officers to inquire into the status of an immigrant during the course of their normal duties in enforcing state and local law. This practice allows state and local law enforcement officers to play an indirect role that is incidental to their general criminal enforcement authority.
For example, when state or local officers question the immigration status of someone they have detained for a state or local violation, they may contact an ICE agent at the Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC). The federal agent may then place a detainer on the suspect, requesting the state official to keep the suspect in custody until a determination can be made as to the suspect’s immigration status. However, the continued detention of such a suspect beyond the needs of local law enforcement, and solely designed to aid in enforcement of federal immigration laws, may be unlawful.
The power to prescribe rules as to which aliens may enter the U.S. and which aliens may be removed solely resides with the federal government. It has generally been assumed that state and local officers may enforce the criminal provisions of the INA if state law permits them to do so but are assumed to be precluded from directly enforcing the INA’s civil provisions. State enforcement of the criminal provisions of the INA is seen as being consistent with the state’s police power to make arrests for criminal acts and the expectation that states are expected to cooperate in the enforcement of federal criminal laws.
To the degree that it is not preempted, the authority of state and local law enforcement officers to investigate and arrest for violations of federal law is determined by reference to state law. This may be done through express authorization in state law. However, this may not be necessary according to some recent decisions from the Tenth Circuit that appear to suggest that state and local law enforcement officers may possess “inherent authority” within their respective jurisdictions to investigate and make arrests for criminal immigration matters.
However, civil violations of the INA are also found to be within the jurisdictional authority of the state and local law enforcement. In the Tenth Circuit case of United States v. Salinas-Calderon, a state trooper pulled over the defendant for driving erratically but soon found six individuals in the back of the defendant’s truck. The court determined that the trooper had "probable cause" to detain and arrest all the individuals. In United States v. Vasquez-Alvarez, an Oklahoma police officer arrested a Hispanic male suspected of drug dealing because he was an “illegal alien.”
The defendant argued that the state police could only arrest him in accordance with the restrictions detailed in 8 U.S.C. §1252c and since his arrest did not meet the requirements of that provision, it was unauthorized. The Tenth Circuit, however, ultimately concluded that §1252c “does not limit or displace the preexisting general authority of state or local police officers to investigate and make arrests for violations of federal law, including immigration law. Instead, §1252c merely creates an additional vehicle for the enforcement of federal immigration law.”
Clearly preemption does not bar state and local immigration enforcement where Congress has evidenced intent to authorize such enforcement. In exercising its power to regulate immigration, Congress is free to delegate to the states, among other things, the activities of arresting, holding, and transporting aliens. Indeed, Congress already has created avenues for the participation of state and local officers in the enforcement of the federal immigration laws.