A majority of Utahns would like to see local law enforcement play more of a role in the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
In a recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll, 60 percent of the respondents think there should be a local role in immigration enforcement. The issue is one of several questions lawmakers will debate in the upcoming legislative session as they review a slate of bills dealing with illegal immigration.
"I think people are looking at it and they understand the issue," Rep. Glenn Donnelson, R-North Ogden, said. "They don't have enough ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents ... If some of the local law enforcement officers have the ability to do that, it will help the situation out."
Only 32 percent of the 413 Utahns polled by Dan Jones and Associates disagreed with requiring local law enforcement officers to perform some duties of federal immigration agents.
Cross-deputization had stronger support among Republicans 63 percent favored it compared with 44 percent of Democrats. The poll, conducted Jan. 8-10, had a 5 percent margin of error.
Tony Yapias, who heads Proyecto de Latino de Utah, sees the poll as an indication of a troubling "fever pitch" in public opinion.
"The public is being deceived by just believing cross-deputization is going to solve problems," he said. "The problem needs to be solved in Washington."
Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble said resources may be a problem with creating a local role in federal enforcement.
"If we had all of our local, county and state law enforcement trained and authorized ... there's not enough jail space," Bramble said. "ICE doesn't have the capacity to deal with it."
However, at least some lawmakers are saying locals should play a role. Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Provo, is sponsoring a bill to require jails to report suspected deportable immigrants to ICE.
Steven Branch, director for detention and removal operations at ICE's Salt Lake City field office, said he can't comment on pending legislation. He did say, however, that local agencies in Utah are already cooperating with federal immigration agents, in part by contacting ICE to determine citizenship status of suspects. That applies not only to illegal immigrants but to legal immigrants who may have committed deportable crimes.
"They're all on board with working with us," he said. "I haven't seen or heard of any county jail or police department that didn't want to work with us."
However, because of limited resources, ICE sometimes has to prioritize calls, responding to those that involve more serious crimes first, Branch said.
That's what has motivated Donnelson to sponsor HB237, which would direct the Department of Public Safety to enter into an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security under the federal 287(g) rule to cross-deputize some of its troopers to enforce immigration law.
The 287(g) agreements provide federal training for local and state law enforcement or corrections officers, giving them the ability to pursue certain immigration enforcement duties, according to ICE.
There are currently 34 such agreements nationwide, with nearly 600 officers trained, and resulting in more than 38,400 arrests, ICE reports.
There are 90 requests for such agreements pending. One of those was made last August by the Davis County Sheriff's Department, which wants 10 of its jail officers to receive federal training to interview arrestees and put a hold on those who are determined to be deportable, said Chief Deputy Bob Yeaman. The county's request was made last August.
"There are so many (deportable offenders) and so few ICE officers, they don't always get down here to put a hold on these folks," Yeaman said. "These folks bail, and we never see them again."
Jeff Nigbur, Public Safety spokesman, said his department is evaluating Donnelson's bill. Last year, Public Safety was concerned about the mandate for the agreement, though he said it could be a useful extra tool in investigations in cases such as when a vehicle has already been pulled over on probable cause.
The issue is also being looked at in a comprehensive bill being drafted by Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, which would allow the state attorney general to enter into a 287(g) agreement and prevent local governments from passing ordinances against cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Hickman's bill would also, like Sandstrom's, require city and county jails to attempt to determine citizenship status of inmates.Hickman says he's seen overwhelmingly positive feedback from his own constituents and from people across the state, adding: "I think the citizens of the state are willing to step up to the plate to assist local law enforcement with additional revenue, if necessary, to solve this problem."