Imagine how old, one-bullet Barney Fife would handle the immigration problem in Mayberry, particularly if Sheriff Andy was out of town. Probably no one would be safe from Barney's digging to find whether they actually were citizens, even the mayor, and certainly swarthy visitors. Let me see your driver's license and your birth certificate.
Silly, isn't it? But it could just be more real than we would like considering the Department of Homeland Security's program 287(g) permitting immigration enforcement to be handled by local sheriffs, most of whom are elected politicians without prior law enforcement experience and are utterly untrained in the complexities of one of the nation's most difficult problems. In many venues they are basically summons servers and jailers.
In Cobb County Georgia, where the population is 11 percent Hispanic, the sheriff has touched off a firestorm of protest by filing a felony charge against a 21-year-old undocumented college student who has been in this country since she was 11. What was her crime? She gave the police a false address. However, according to her lawyer, she did give them the address where she used to live and where her car insurance is registered. He said she also provided police with her current address.
The student, Jessica Colotl, is a Mexican immigrant brought here as a child with her parents. She surrendered to the sheriff and was released on $2,500 bond, telling reporters she was treated like a criminal who was a threat to the nation. Earlier her supporters, including the president of the university she attends and where she has an exemplary academic record, convinced U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities to free her from a detention center. They granted her a one-year reprieve from deportation so she could graduate.
Colotl was initially apprehended for the heinous crime of "impeding traffic" whatever that means. The arresting officer was a highly trained immigration specialist and traffic monitor - i.e. a campus cop.
This particular case has broad national repercussions with all the elements of the national immigration problems. It includes local politics, the increasingly virile Hispanic voting bloc; the cost of educating illegals at all three levels -- elementary, secondary, and college -- and the question of basic fairness. Jessica has been paying instate tuition at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta. She now must pay the higher out of state fees as an illegal.
Most importantly it highlights the growing rift, as has the much-publicized Arizona law giving police jurisdiction over immigration, between the federal authorities and state and local politicians over how illegal immigrants are detected and prosecuted. According to press reports, civil rights leaders have charged that Cobb County historically uses federal laws aimed at detecting dangerous criminals to arrest illegal immigrants for minor offenses. It is an allegation backed up by an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation that showed from 2007-09 the main crime for which immigrants were detained was traffic related.
Of course not all sheriffs' departments are incompetent or mean spirited as is charged. But it is safe to say a significant number are more interested in which way the political winds are blowing than in dealing out justice soundly and fairly, especially in areas of the country where they wield considerable power. Traditionally, they are an office that is rewarded by lucrative jail contracts and other fees. It seems unbelievable that Homeland Security officials would turn them loose on such a complex situation.
All of this is the result of chaos caused by congressional inaction. That vacuum is being filled by a patchwork of state and local policies that have failed not only to quell the worst elements in the illegal immigration flow but also to provide for the best immigrants to become citizens or documented workers. Without some coherent overall plan it can only get worse.
Jessica Colotl told reporters that she is hoping for the adoption of the Development, Relief and Education for Illegal Minors Act that would provide students with a path to become legal. She probably should not hold her breath until that occurs. Or for that matter until Andy returns to get her out of the jam she is in with Barney.
E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.