How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Sheriff's Dept. to Miramonte Elementary parents: 'We will not ask their legal status'

Photo by Pyrat Wesly/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The sign at a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department substation, June 2011

A post yesterday tied to the Miramonte Elementary School scandal addressed the rights of immigrant crime victims, regardless of their immigration status. But in the days since two teachers were charged with committing lewd acts against children, many families still have reservations about speaking to authorities due to their immigration status and don't know their rights, immigrant advocates and attorneys are saying.

Complicating things somewhat, for those who follow these things, is the location of the school. Miramonte Elementary lies in a heavily Latino part of South L.A. that is unincorporated, patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Unlike the Los Angeles Police Department, which has a policy on the books intended to protect undocumented victims and witnesses, the department has two different immigration enforcement partnerships with the federal government.

Should parents who think their children may have been harmed feel safe about coming forward, even if they are undocumented? It may be a tough crowd to convince, but Sheriff's Department officials are saying yes. Sgt. Dan Scott said this afternoon that the department is trying to put together a formal message, but that for now, the word to Miramonte families is not to worry about being turned in to immigration authorities for speaking up.

"They have Sheriff Lee Baca's word that there will not be prosecution or even inquiries into anybody's legal status in this country," Scott said. "We are seeking victims, witnesses, or anybody that has information about this case to please come forward to the Sheriff's Special Victims Unit, which is our normal process. We will not ask their legal status. The Sheriff specifically wants that message out: We will not be inquiring as to their legal status."

As it evolves, the Miramonte case could prompt a broader discussion over police-immigrant relations. In the past year, immigrant advocates, some state and local lawmakers, and law enforcement principals have spoken out against federal-local partnerships like Secure Communities, a controversial program that allows for fingerprints taken at local jail facilities to be shared with immigration officials, pre-conviction. Another program, a voluntary one used in Los Angeles County jails known as 287(g), allows information about inmates to be shared with the federal immigration authorities. Critics of these programs say they can alienate immigrant communities, potentially impeding policing as people decline to step forward for fear of arrest.

The Los Angeles Police Department has long had a policy known as Special Order 40, which bars officers from inquiring about immigration status. LAPD chief Charlie Beck has expressed mixed feelings about Secure Communities, while Baca has supported it.

However, those who step forward in the Miramonte case will not be fingerprinted, said Scott of the Sheriff's Department, who said interpreters will be provided for those who need one. "All we are going to do is talk to them," he said.

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