This week the Police Foundation sponsored a two day conference, “The Role of Local Police: Striking a balance between immigration enforcement and civil liberties.”

One of the highlights was a speech by Mayor Phil Gordon of Phoenix, a vocal supporter of immigration reform and opponent of the antics of Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County. Gordon understands firsthand both the impact that undocumented immigration has had on his community and the impact that using the wrong policies to try to fix a very real problem have had. Drop houses, kidnapping operations, smuggling, and trafficking are all issues the Phoenix has to deal with on a daily basis, and they are direct results of the illegality wrought by the current broken immigration system. He also spoke about costs of enforcing immigration law — the financial costs, the public safety costs, and the human costs.

Most striking were the social costs — how the nature and tone of the immigration debate is dividing our communities. Mayor Gordon explained that public protests and demonstrations are occasionally attended by people armed with knives and guns, but are always attended by people holding signs with hateful slogans such as “Hooray for the slaughtering of the illegals!” Gordon shared the story of a Hispanic U.S. marine in full uniform, who was harassed, insulted, and called a traitor by a group of protesters shouting “It’s too bad you didn’t die in the war — you’re a disgrace to your uniform–Go back to your own country.” Gordon’s response was “Well this American hero of Hispanic heritage IS in his own country. He fought for this country.”

Gordon was then immediately upstaged by Julie Erfle, widow of Officer Nick Erfle who was shot and killed by an undocumented immigrant less than a year ago. Rather than joining hands with the extremist elements, Julie has spoken out about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. Referring to her husband’s killer, she said, “It would have been easy to say deport his family; just deport them all. They killed my husband…except ‘they’ didn’t kill my husband. A fellow named Erik Martinez killed my husband, and Erik Martinez isn’t a ‘they’…he is, however, a very powerful example of a failed immigration policy.”

Over the day and a half, there was a great deal of heartfelt but respectful disagreement over various issues, and it was clear that the whole spectrum of opinions on the immigration debate was represented. Yet everyone agreed that maintaining the confidence and trust of the immigrant community is key to public safety and that while deputizing cops to enforce immigration laws may or may not make an impact on their community, it’s not a solution to the nation’s overall immigration problems. Congress needs to act and pass better laws so that they can spend their time investigating and arresting criminals who threaten our communities, not people who just want to drive their cars to work.

“I am calling upon this Congress and the next one, this president and the next one, to make the dual issues of border security and immigration reform their first order of business,” demanded Gordon.

While absolutely necessary, we all know that achieving immigration reform isn’t easy. But in a room full of cops, listening to Julie Erfle speak, my hope is restored.

Photo by psilver