Law enforcement agencies struggling to fill their ranks or connect with their increasingly diverse populations are turning to immigrants to fill the gap.
Most agencies in the country require officers or deputies to be U.S. citizens, but some are allowing immigrants who are legally in the country to wear the badge. From Hawaii to Vermont, agencies are allowing green-card holders and legal immigrants with work permits to join their ranks.
At a time when 25,000 non-U.S. citizens are serving in the U.S. military, some feel it’s time for more police and sheriff departments to do the same. That’s why the Nashville Police Department is joining other departments to push the state legislature to change a law that bars non-citizens from becoming law enforcement officers.
Department spokesman Don Aaron said they want immigrants who have been honorably discharged from the military to be eligible for service.
“Persons who have given of themselves in the service to this country potentially have much to offer Tennesseans,” he said. “We feel that … would benefit both the country and this city.”
Current rules vary across departments.
Some, like the Chicago and Hawaii police departments, allow any immigrant with a work authorization from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to become an officer. That means people in the country on temporary visas or are applying for green cards can join.
Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Justin Mullins said the department usually struggles to fill trooper positions in less populous corners of the state, including patrol sectors high up in the mountains. He said immigrants from Canada, the Bahamas, the United Kingdom, Mexico and Central America who are willing to live in those remote places have helped the agency fill those vacancies.
“People that want to live there and build a family there and work there is a little more difficult to find,” Mullins said. “People moving from out of state, or out of the country, if they’re willing to work in these areas, then that’s great for us.”
Other agencies, like the Cincinnati Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, require that officers at least have a pending citizenship application on file with the federal government. And others, like the Burlington, Vt., and Boulder, Colo., police departments, require that officers be legal permanent residents, or green-card holders.
With more immigrants moving to places far from the southern border or away from traditional immigrant magnets like New York City or Miami, agency leaders say it’s important to have a more diverse police force to communicate with those immigrants and understand their culture. Bruce Bovat, deputy chief of operations in Burlington, said their immigrant officers help the agency be more “reflective of the community we serve.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he has no problems with green-card holders becoming police officers because they’ve made a long-term commitment to the country and have undergone extensive background checks. But he worries about the security risks associated with allowing any immigrant with a work permit to become an officer, especially considering that the Obama administration has given hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants work permits.
“We’re handing over a gun and a badge to somebody whose background we don’t really know a lot about,” Krikorian said.
Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said any immigrant authorized to work in the U.S. has already undergone a thorough background check and will undergo even more screening in the police application process.
“The security risk is a straw man,” he said. “This is about people who have gone through criminal background checks, who are meeting the very high standards that we set as a country to stay here and who only want to serve and protect their communities.”