By HILARY LEHMAN / Associated Press
Three leaders from police departments in national immigration hot spots said Wednesday the federal government should remove the burden of enforcement from local agencies if it wants to fix the immigration system.
Chiefs John Timoney of Miami and Art Acevedo of Austin, Texas; and former Chief Art Venegas of Sacramento, Calif., called for an increased federal presence along the border and stricter enforcement of employment laws during a panel discussion organized by America's Voice, a group that advocates immigration reform.
Acevedo said police departments are stretched too thin. When officers should be responding to crime scenes, they're outside stores ensuring illegal immigrants aren't hired.
"Police are tied up outside of places where people are looking for work when there are crimes going on," Acevedo said. "It's a matter of resources and priorities."
Officials at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.
The Austin chief said "economic immigrants" — people who come to the U.S. in search of employment or a better life — shouldn't be treated as criminals. They're in violation of civil statutes, not criminal laws, he said.
The chiefs said they wouldn't turn a blind eye to crimes committed by illegal residents but denied such crime was a major concern in their precincts. Timoney, who came to the U.S. as an illegal immigrant with his family at 13, said there is often less crime in the immigrant communities because of fear of deportation.
But that fear also hurts law enforcement efforts, the chiefs said.
"We cannot have a whole community of people afraid of coming forward when the time is absolutely critical to solving a case," Venegas said.