Guest Commentary

Retired Garden City Chief of Police: For our safety, welcome immigrants

A crowd gathered last October in Garden City to hear a law enforcement briefing on the foiled bomb plot targeting Somalian refugees.
A crowd gathered last October in Garden City to hear a law enforcement briefing on the foiled bomb plot targeting Somalian refugees. The Wichita Eagle

The national debate over immigration policy came to my city’s doorstep in October. Three U.S. citizens who belonged to an anti-government militia movement were arrested for planning to bomb an apartment complex in Garden City, Kan. They were targeting Somali refugees who live there.

Thankfully, federal authorities uncovered the bomb plot before it was carried out, and no one was injured. After the incident, the refugees were understandably afraid. But the outpouring of support was astounding. Faith leaders, longtime residents and members of the Garden City Police Department — where I served for 19 years — held a rally to show solidarity with the Somali community. In a time when fear and rancor guide our discourse about immigration, it was a beautiful display.

Garden City is made stronger by the immigrants and refugees in our midst. We are a “majority-minority” city. Latinos composed nearly half of the population in 2010, and other minority groups compose an additional 7 to 8 percent. People from around the world live and work here, raising their families and boosting the economy. The vast majority do so without incident or criminal record.

As chief of police from 1996 to 2015, I had the chance to work with local refugee resettlement agencies and other organizations that aid immigrants. I saw that immigrants in southwest Kansas are overwhelmingly law-abiding, longstanding members of the community, often with families.

The key to keeping Garden City safe is to establish trust between local law enforcement and law-abiding residents. When immigrant communities trust local police, they are more likely to call after witnessing crime or suspicious activity. Without that trust, fear of arrest or deportation can limit willingness to cooperate in investigations. I have known immigrants who have refused to call an ambulance when someone is sick or injured.

Now we are learning that the Trump administration is looking for ways to build out its enforcement and deportation capabilities, including the possibility of empowering local police. That would only speed the erosion of trust, make law enforcement’s work more difficult and leave our communities less safe. When immigrants feel safe, we are all safer.

A key part of sustaining trust is separating local law enforcement from federal immigration enforcement. As chief of police I made sure that our department cooperated with federal authorities in their immigration enforcement as provided by law — none of us wants criminals running free in our neighborhoods. But federal authorities, not local ones, are best equipped to carry out federal policy on immigration, and they should prioritize immigrants with violent criminal backgrounds.

When local and state authorities are deputized as immigration enforcers, we have a harder time fulfilling our normal, everyday activities from a resources standpoint as well. The state and local governments throughout Kansas have faced budget challenges in recent years. Diverting additional time, training and manpower to enforcing complex immigration policies would sidetrack us from our primary mission: to protect the public.

The planned bombing last fall shook our community. Residents of Garden City could have widened divisions rooted in fear. Instead, we chose to see Somali refugees for the law-abiding mothers, fathers, workers and neighbors that they really are.

In our national debates about immigrants and immigration, we should strive for cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement — and between law enforcement and the immigrant communities who are so essential to keeping our cities and families safe.

James R. Hawkins served as chief of police in Garden City until his retirement in 2015. He is now a special agent with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

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