New Legislation Would Make Local Police Officers Federal Agents

If the Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act passes, it could set a dangerous precedent that would allow the federal government to nationalize the police and limit local authority to manage their police departments.

Local officials have historically been responsible for managing local police departments in the United States, and officials in more than 19,000 cities and towns currently play a significant role in how their police officers protect and serve their residents. The majority of these departments are in small cities and towns, and they often have only a handful of officers to protect their communities. Local officials work closely with their city’s law enforcement officials to ensure police officers have the support, resources and training they need to serve their communities with honor, integrity, moral character and courage.

However, this could radically change if Congress passes legislation that would make local police officers “employees of the federal government” and give them the authority to detain people that could be in the country illegally.

With more than 91 Republican co-sponsors in the House and 25 Republican co-sponsors in the Senate, the Stop Dangerous Sanctuary Cities Act (H.R. 400/S. 87) would make local police officers federal agents to enforce federal immigration laws. According to the bill’s authors, Representative Diane Black (R-TN-6) and Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA), the purpose of making local police officers federal agents is to provide them legal protection if someone files a lawsuit to challenge the legality of detaining them without probable cause and judicial warrant.

Passage of this legislation will set a very dangerous precedent and continue to erode our federalist system in which the U.S. Constitution ensures the power to police is left to state and local governments. Giving the federal government the authority to make local police officers federal agents undermines the role of local elected officials in managing their police departments and erodes the trust residents place on local officials to protect and serve their communities.

The legislation specifically targets a city “that has a statute, policy or practice in effect that prohibits or restricts 1) information sharing about an individual’s immigration status, or 2) compliance with a lawfully-issued detainer request or notification of release request.” The legislation would bar the city from receiving grants administered through the Economic Development Assistance Program and the Community Development Block Grant Program.

If the city wants to continue to receive grants through these programs, it will be forced to make its police officers federal agents of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and comply with any DHS detainer request.

If passed into law, this legislation (as it is currently written) could face significant Constitutional challenges, as it may violate the Tenth Amendment, which reserves powers not delegated to the federal government to the state. It is the sole responsibility of the federal government to detain, prosecute and deport individuals who violate federal immigration laws.

At a time when local governments are working to strengthen police-community relations, build trust, advance initiatives to increase economic mobility, and live out their values of inclusion and equity, legislative proposals to make local police officers federal agents are particularly troubling and counterproductive. An attempt by Congress to shift the federal responsibility of enforcing federal immigration laws to local police is an unfunded mandate that diverts critical resources from local government programs, compromises public safety, and hinders local efforts to work with immigrant communities.

NLC’s long-standing position is that measures requiring cities to use local law enforcement resources to enforce federal immigration laws are unfunded mandates that impose additional disproportionate responsibilities on local law enforcement, increase financial liability on local governments, and ultimately move us further from our foundational principles of federalism.

Instead of making local police officers federal agents, Congress should work with local governments to find a solution to our broken immigration system that respects the principles of local control, effectively enforces current immigration law, and creates a process whereby undocumented immigrants currently living in our cities may earn legalized status.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read The Federal Government Needs to Fix the Immigration System — Not Cities.

Featured image from Getty Images.

About the author: Yucel (“u-jel”) Ors is the program director of public safety and crime prevention at the National League of Cities. Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.