PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Supporters of Arizona's new illegal-immigration law have in recent weeks cited Rhode Island as a state where police have been quietly carrying out comparably tough enforcement without a court challenge from the Obama administration.
But in Rhode Island, both sides of the debate agree that the executive order issued by Gov. Don Carcieri in 2008 is far less sweeping than the Arizona law, which takes effect this month.
Comparisons of the two approaches are intended to rationalize the law in Arizona, generally more conservative than Rhode Island, by suggesting it's already more or less in place in a heavily Democratic state, said Steven Brown, a leading critic of the governor's order and executive director of the Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"The only reason I can see individuals focusing on Rhode Island is for political purposes and stretching what's happened here as a way to try and compare a largely Democratic state — a blue state — with a red state and somehow claim that Rhode Island should be looked at similarly," Brown said.
The Arizona law makes it a state crime for immigrants to not carry immigration documents; Rhode Island's executive order has no such provision.
Arizona's law generally requires local police officers, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if there is a "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is in the country illegally. Rhode Island's order directs the State Police to help with immigration enforcement and encourages — but, importantly, does not require — local police to seek a suspect's immigration status.
State troopers in Rhode Island routinely check the immigration status of crime suspects, as well as people pulled over for traffic violations, if they have reasonable suspicion and will alert federal immigration authorities if they believe or can determine that someone is in the country illegally, said State Police Superintendent Brendan Doherty.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will then decide whether the person should be immediately taken into custody or can be released pending a court appearance, Doherty said.
The ACLU has received complaints since the executive order from people who say they were unfairly pulled over or interrogated, Brown said, but such accusations can be hard to prove in court. A Boston-based federal appeals court this year upheld a Rhode Island trooper's decision during a 2006 traffic stop to seek immigration documents from passengers in a van carrying about a dozen Guatemalans who mostly admitted to being in the country illegally.
Commentators on blogs and television have seized this month on the State Police protocol to draw parallels to the Arizona law, asking why Rhode Island has not received attention for similar immigration enforcement.
In a July 7 post on the National Review website titled "United States v. Arizona — How 'Bout United States v. Rhode Island?", commentator Andrew McCarthy, a former federal prosecutor in New York, asked why the Obama administration had not already sued Rhode Island for "carrying out the procedures at issue in the Arizona immigration statute."
William Jacobson, an associate clinical law professor at Cornell University, wrote this month on his blog, Legal Insurrection, that "Arizona is the new Rhode Island" and said it was ironic that strict enforcement practices would be carried out in the "state of Sheldon Whitehouse," a Democratic senator.
And an Internet post this month by columnist and blogger Ed Morrissey said Rhode Island has been doing for years what Arizona now wants to do — but "without a peep" from the U.S. Department of Justice.
But those comparisons don't mention that local police in Rhode Island are under no legal obligation to determine a suspect's immigration status and that some specifically choose not to. That distinction is critical because city and town police officers are directly responsible for investigating neighborhood crime and would presumably have greater opportunity to encounter illegal immigrants than state troopers.
In Providence, home to the state's largest police department, officers wary of rupturing community ties or scaring off potential witnesses generally will not check a suspect's immigration status or involve U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless a search for criminal history or outstanding warrants reveals the individual is wanted for an immigration violation, said Police Chief Dean Esserman.
"Our focus is public safety and crime and building trust in the community for people to come forward and speak to us," Esserman said. "We do not take the role of the federal immigration authorities."
The Justice Department did not return an e-mail seeking comment Monday on whether it had considered challenging laws in states other than Arizona.
Carcieri imposed the executive order in March 2008, blaming illegal immigrants for using up state resources and, like Arizona officials, faulting the federal government for failing to control the problem. The Pew Hispanic Center has estimated Rhode Island's illegal immigrant population as between 20,000 and 40,000.
The executive order in Rhode Island, as well as Arizona's law, prompted an outcry from civil rights groups and immigrant advocates who feared it could lead to racial profiling. Some in Rhode Island who support the order say they don't think it goes far enough and prefer the Arizona law, which is the target of a Justice Department lawsuit and is set to take effect July 29.