The War on Terror, Local Police, and Immigration Enforcement: A Curious Tale of Police Power in Post-9/11 America


David A. Harris


In post-9/11 America, no goal ranks higher for law enforcement than preventing the next terrorist attack. This is as true for local police departments as it is for the FBI, and police in cities. At the same time, many advocates of tightening U.S. immigration enforcement have recast their efforts as national security and anti-terrorism campaigns. Thus, these advocates and their many allies in the current administration and in Congress have called for local police to become involved in enforcing immigration law. Officials in both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government have taken a number of actions designed to make this happen, pushing expanded power and authority on law enforcement in order that these agencies take up the fight.

In the past, as national crises over crime have been declared – think, for example, of the war on drugs – state and local police have risen as one to enlist in the struggle, and have both fought for and accepted expanded authority to carry out their duties. Thus it will surprise many to hear that, in this instance – with nothing less than the prevention of terrorist attacks at stake – local law enforcement has, for the most part, vehemently refused to accept the increased authority to enforce immigration law that the federal government has proffered.

Various explanations have been tendered for this, but the one that rings truest by far is that police do not wish to become involved in immigration enforcement because doing so constitutes bad police work – that is, poor public safety policy. Becoming adjunct soldiers to federal immigration enforcement agencies will actually make the public not safer, but less safe, from criminals and predators. Ironically, it will also make Americans less safe from the dangers posed by terrorists. The reasons for this have much to do with the building success and popularity of community policing among police officers over the last twenty years. As police officers in departments of all sizes in every region of the U.S. know, making communities safe depends on intelligence gathering – which in turn depends on the very types of relationships between the public and the police that community policing produces.

Thus the refusal of state and local law enforcement to become involved in immigration enforcement both illuminates a turning point in American policing, and teaches us important lessons in how we must go forward in the war on terror if we are to succeed.


Criminal Law | Criminal Procedure | Immigration Law

Date of this Version

May 2006