Raquel Uribe has applied for legal papers so her husband — who is not a U.S. citizen — can drive to work without fear of getting pulled over and taken to jail.
But will they arrive soon enough?
“What happens to my husband if he does not have the papers just yet?” she asked in advance of House Bill 87 — Georgia’s new immigration law — being implemented starting on July 1. “I’m concerned that (police) officers are not properly trained to determine who is documented and who is not. There are many different types of status. The officers won’t know who or who is not to be detained.”
Uribe was one of more than a dozen students learning English in a class on the east side of town Saturday afternoon. Some expressed concerns about being separated from their children if detained — and possibly deported. Others wondered what will happen if they — as legal citizens — are pulled over while unknowingly giving a ride to someone without documentation.
Will they be arrested also?
“I’ve been here 12 years in Dalton, this is my home now,” said Aradio Mendez. “But I’m concerned that (the authorities) will punish us not just because of traffic offenses, but for transporting relatives who may be here illegally just for now.”
But Police Chief Jason Parker said Dalton is ahead of the curve when it comes to immigration enforcement because of the 287(g) program — a joint venture between the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — that helps authorities identify “criminal aliens” who could be deported.
“As I understand the new law, I don’t think we’ll be doing anything different from an operational standpoint,” he said. “We currently do have the ability to check on somebody’s status if they’re involved in a crime. We don’t do that very often for several reasons. First of all, the sheriff’s office has 287(g) in place already, so our understanding is that anyone we arrest — which means they’ve committed a crime of some kind — the jail personnel check their status when they go in.”
Parker also said detectives “use ICE resources” in the course of their investigations.
“When the sun comes up on July 1, we’ll still be taking care of business in the same way that we have, and that is according to what the Constitution allows and what our strategic plan is, and we really don’t plan to change that. We feel like we’re being fair with the public and we feel like we’re enforcing the law fairly,” he said.
But a physician who has been here for years says a “humanitarian crisis” has erupted in the Latino community because of rumors spinning out about the new law.
“I can tell you that people are scared, they’re afraid (and) suffering traumatic stress over it,” said Dr. Pablo Perez, a native of Peru who has been in the U.S. since 1992 and in Dalton for 12 years. “From a medical point of view, I can tell you that people who have anxiety or mood disorders are suffering exacerbations of those problems. It’s affecting the entire Latino community, not only legal or illegal — but minorities such as Asians and other people of color. And it’s because of (HB 87), how it’s been proposed. People feel like it’s not fair and is dividing the community. We see people coming (into the clinic) and crying because one of the family members has been separated.
“Kids are afraid they’ll come home from school and not find their parents at home.”
Perez, who has been a U.S. citizen for five years, added, “There is a lot of chaos. I can tell you (it’s) a humanitarian crisis. It’s not exaggerated, it’s something real ... it’s a collective hysteria, a panic that people are developing even when there is not something concrete going on. The rumors scare the people, and the rumors make them leave.”
Several meetings around town organized by Hispanic leaders have attempted to dispel rumors about the law in the Latino community. One such meeting took place at St. Joseph’s Medical Clinic, where Perez practices.
“Most of the concerns were about people’s rights,” said Carlos Calderin of Calderin and Oliva, a law firm specializing in immigration rights, which directed the meeting of around three dozen Latinos. “One of the biggest concerns was what happens to a U.S. citizen who is driving around and has people in the car — and that it somehow comes out that those people are undocumented. And so, one of the things we tried to explain was that ... if you’re just giving someone a ride that’s undocumented and the person gets arrested (for giving them a ride) — that just doesn’t happen. We tried to explain the fact that there needs to be an independent crime being committed, and too, that the driver must have known and intended to transport illegal aliens. And so we talked about the fact that you may suspect that somebody is undocumented but sometimes we don’t know if they are or not — like a car pool. You have to have known they didn’t have papers.”
Calderin said another concern is whether police will be out in force arresting people during roadblocks, or just walking around and asking people for legal status papers.
“That’s a typical concern that people have that was clarified,” he said.
Parker believes traffic stops are conducted in “a fair way.”
“Road checks are conducted on a city-wide basis, we try to cover all areas of the city so we can ensure we’ll be as fair as we possibly can,” he said. “Now, let’s just say somebody lives in a neighborhood. Do they only drive in that neighborhood? No, they drive all over town because the resources — the stores and so forth — are spread throughout (the city). So I think you’d have difficulty in saying there is a Hispanic neighborhood anymore or a Hispanic ‘location’ anymore. It’s no more than you could say there’s a Caucasian-only section of town because people have assimilated, they’ve bought property ... and people live everywhere.”
Working toward a bilingual force
Police Officer Federico Nietzche of the Dalton Police Department grew up in Dalton and graduated from Southeast High School in 1999. He said when news of House Bill 87 hit the Hispanic community through radio shows and the Internet, there was an “initial shock.”
“It was like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re passing a big immigration law that’s going to run everybody out,’” said Nietzche, a four-year Latino member of the Dalton force who followed in his grandfather’s steps and became a policeman. “There was a lot of talk about what we would do (as a law enforcement agency), whether we’d be going down the road asking people for their papers. The answer is no. It won’t affect the average citizen walking downtown.”
He said a “concern” he’s picked up on from the Hispanic community as a patrol officer is that law enforcement officers would become “immigration officers” starting July 1.
“That’s all they were concerned about,” Nietzche said, “thinking, ‘Are you going to be able to arrest anyone who’s illegal?’”
Parker said the force has five bilingual officers and others have been trained in the Spanish language.
“We couldn’t say that our entire force is fluent, by any means, but we can say we have the only agency in the state that requires and provides for officers to receive training in the Spanish language,” he said. “The reason for that is that we realize half of the population we serve is of Hispanic ethnicity or an ethnic group that does not speak English.”
Nietzche said his understanding of the new law is that it gives officers “authority” to ask for immigration status if a person is breaking the law or attempting to give false information.
“The new law is giving us more tools in the bag to use,” he said. “The average citizen has nothing to worry about, but it gives us another tool to deal with people who are breaking the law or who are involved in something suspicious.”
Police spokesman Bruce Frazier said there is “one thing” the law doesn’t change.
“We still have to have probable cause to investigate someone,” he said. “It has to be probable cause for anything in a law enforcement situation, because we know we can be challenged in court on that.”
Still, Perez said misinformation is causing “a lot of division and issues of fear and insecurity.”
“The chief of police has a perception that we need to have a safe community, a safe environment — and they are not attacking the Latino community,” he said. “But unfortunately, there are some other things that could be out of his hands that could be an abuse of authority. It could be that this law (allows) some officers to commit racial profiling or to have certain types of activities that are not constitutional ... it’s a very complex, sensitive issue that we need to address in our community from different perspectives.”
Parker said rights are an area “we pay close attention to.”
“We feel like we’ve been very careful about guarding against institutional things creeping up where there appears to be some sort of constitutional problem in the way that citizens are being treated by the officers,” he said.
Parker was asked if there have been interactions with the Hispanic community at a leadership level.
“We’ve made some attempts in the past to do that, and I would describe our results as moderately successful,” he said. “It’s difficult to identify sometimes who are the — quote, unquote — leaders of a particular group. We would prefer to deal with citizens on a one-on-one basis and hear their concerns, because we’re more likely to hear the unvarnished information straight from them, about what their particular concern is. I think it would be difficult for one advocacy group or another to say that they represent all people of that ethnicity — when that’s almost one-half of the city’s population.”
But Parker said there has been no “hue and cry” from any ethnic groups to the police department in advance of the law’s implementation.
“In the last couple of weeks ... (we’ve) not heard complaints from advocacy groups or others who have taken a position that they represent Hispanic groups,” he reported. “So I’m concerned that, in conjunction with House Bill 87, that all of a sudden there’s now this new concern. So I would ask where was this concern prior to that? We’ve been here all the time. And our officers, I feel like, know the community fairly well.”
Nietzche was asked if the law is putting a strain on relations between the department and the Hispanic community.
“So far I don’t see it, probably because it hasn’t been implemented,” he said. “There’s been a love-hate relationship from the Latino community, but it has nothing to do with immigration. There’s a group that will not call the police no matter what, and other citizens who will. It’s either black or white with no gray areas. The Hispanic community doesn’t want to give (white officers) a chance, though. We have some Anglo officers who can speak Spanish well, but when I get on the scene (Latinos) ‘open up’ when I get there.”
Frazier said some of the negative perceptions of the police there may originate from other areas of the country.
“It may come from places where there’s a distrust of the police,” he said. “One of the things we’ve tried to do is get the message out — you can call the police and make reports. We don’t want people to become victims without a voice.”
A ‘gut feeling’
Still, Perez has his concerns.
“The more information by qualified people who can tell about the reality of the law, how it’s going to be implemented, is helpful to reassure the community that it’s not as bad as they think,” he agreed. “But the intentions of the law actually is to intimidate, there’s no question about that.”
He said it could also impact him personally, even though he is a U.S. citizen — and perhaps endanger the life of a patient.
“I am concerned that I may be stopped on the way to the hospital (to see a patient) and be told, ‘Show me your papers,’ and be detained to have to show my immigration status,” he said. “So I’m going to carry my passport with me all the time. So it’s going to affect people — from Belgium, from Europe, from Germany at the Volkswagen plant (in Chattanooga) — having houses here. Nobody sees this law in a good way ... there are students who are coming here. We are trying to be an international community, but when they see the environment I think they would be unwise to invite somebody to come and take part in the different activities here.”
Perez said most Latinos “are not criminals.”
“They are people who are trying to make a better living here, and are quite supportive to our economy — and it is why we should give them a hand,” he said. “I am concerned about lawsuits against the city, against the police if they conduct things in a way that is not constitutional.”
But as a police officer, Nietzche looks at the law differently.
“It will help back up that gut feeling you have about someone,” he said. “In the course of an investigation, the law gives you a list of credible documents you can ask for. If there are no documents, you can use any available resources to determine who they are. (The law) gives us more tools.”