POSTED ON JUNE 6, 2007:
Tulsa Police update Rolodex following congressional visit
After much sound and fury over the City of Tulsa's policy on illegal immigration, city leaders have at long last turned a corner after a closed-door meeting last week between Congressman John Sullivan, Mayor Kathy Taylor, Interim Police Chief David Bostrum, several representatives from the federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency and three City Councilors.
Following the meeting, the Mayor told a local television news station that the Tulsa Police Department didn't have the right telephone numbers to reach ICE and report illegal immigrants detained by officers, but now they do.
"I think they will respond more promptly after this meeting," said the Mayor.
"I think Tulsa has their attention and we have the appropriate numbers to call so that this information gets to them immediately," she also said, according to a recent report by KOTV.
Her comments had at least one reporter asking, "Seriously...?"
They didn't have the right phone numbers all this time? Is that what took a member of Congress traveling all the way from Washington, D.C. to accomplish?
Councilor John Eagleton, who attended the meeting along with Councilors Jack Henderson and Maria Barnes, said the digit-swap was "one very small snippet" of what came out of the meeting, and said reducing its outcome to that is "a mischaracterization and an insult to everyone who was at that meeting."
"The operative part isn't that we didn't have the right number, it's that we weren't calling the wrong number," he said.
He said the number previously in officers' possession rang the ICE office in Virginia, which police weren't dialing anyway.
The correct number, which was delivered during last week's meeting, is for the regional ICE office in Dallas, Texas.
The nearest ICE office is in Oklahoma City, which takes direction from the Dallas office.
Representatives of the Mayor's office and of TPD did not immediately return telephone calls concerning the phone number mix-up.
Oklahoma's First District Republican Congressman John Sullivan, a Tulsa native, has been lobbying for an increased ICE presence in his hometown for some time now, so he naturally weighed-in weeks ago when the City Council began discussing a resolution regarding Tulsa's illegal immigration policy.
The resolution had been in the works for several months to ask the Mayor to direct police to check the immigration status of every person arrested, and to report illegals to ICE within 24 hours.
When the Mayor met with the Council to discuss the resolution in a public committee meeting, representatives from the Hispanic community and other concerned citizens showed up in force to voice their opposition.
"This opens the door for a lot of confusion," said Sebastian Lantos of the Tulsa-based Coalition of Hispanic Organizations and member of Gov. Brad Henry's Advisory Council on Latin American and Hispanic Affairs.
He said the actions called for in the resolution would threaten the "unthreading our society" by inciting panic within the Hispanic community.
"This has the fingerprints of institutional racism and bigotry," said Bishop Carlton Pearson, who also attended.
Councilors Henderson and Roscoe Turner said the resolution might bring the unintended consequence of racial profiling, and might also make some Hispanics less inclined to cooperate with police and report crimes, for fear of deportment.
Barnes said the resolution would be redundant and unnecessary because the county sheriff's office already checks immigration status when a person is processed at the county jail.
The resolution under discussion that day wasn't the one Lantos, Pearson and a standing-room-only multitude of objectors came to oppose, however.
Rather, a compromise between the Mayor and the resolution's sponsors--Councilors Eagleton, Rick Westcott, Cason Carter and Dennis Troyer--was under discussion, which would have only applied to those arrested under felonies.
It also included a specification that arrestees who felt they were wrongly detained as a result of an immigration status check could appeal to the Department of Human Rights.
Taylor has often reiterated her view that the ball is squarely in the federal government's court, rather than state and local governments, to address the problem of illegal immigration.
While most who showed up to oppose the resolution eventually agreed that felons should have their status checked and reported to ICE after all, they maintained that the resolution arose from racist attitudes against Hispanics.
Eagleton, among other councilors, naturally took strong exception to that charge.
"Asking that immigration laws be obeyed and, if you're here illegally don't commit a felony--that doesn't strike me as 'racist,'" he said.
"Isn't it racist instead to think that you can come here and be immune to our laws?" the councilor added.
About immigrants of any descent, Hispanic or otherwise, Eagleton said, "I'm glad they're here. The diversity they bring is what America is all about. What galls me is when they have the temerity to come here and break the law."
While the outcome of that committee meeting seemed to be a general agreement between the Mayor, the Council and members of the Hispanic community over the letter, at least, if not the spirit of the resolution, that letter would change before the time came for an actual vote on it.
The debate took on a new dimension with the intervention of Sullivan and other members of Oklahoma's congressional delegation.
On the day they were to vote, Sullivan sent a letter to the City Council urging them to reject the compromised version and instead resolve to check the status of every person with whom Tulsa police come into contact.
The letter was co-signed by Republican Oklahoma Sens. James Inhofe and Tom Coburn.
"We firmly believe that a change in Tulsa Police Department's 'hands off' policy in dealing with illegal immigration is a vital step towards protecting Tulsa from criminal illegal aliens," the letter read.
By only requiring police to check the status of suspected felons, the congressmen reasoned, officers would be prohibited from checking the status of illegal aliens committing DUIs, hit and run offenses, simple assault, shoplifting, carrying concealed weapons and other offenses.
As a result, Tulsa would be passed over for needed federal resources.
"ICE has repeatedly told us that the Tulsa area has low numbers of illegal alien apprehensions by local law enforcement because proof of citizenship is often not asked for and not reported to ICE, thus depressing the perceived number of criminal illegal aliens residing in our communities," they wrote.
"By allowing TPD to report all immigration violations to ICE during every incident with illegal aliens, this will bolster our case for a permanent ICE office and presence in Tulsa, to help alleviate the strain on our communities, and local law enforcement budgets," they continued.
In answer to Sullivan's urging, the resolution's sponsors returned to what they saw as the middle ground between the wishes of the Congressman and the Mayor: a check on all arrestees, including those arrested for misdemeanor offenses, but not on every person encountered by police.
The Council passed the resolution by a vote of 6-3.
Turner, Henderson and Barnes voted against it.
"I think we made the right decision. This is a compromise between what Congressman Sullivan wanted and what the Mayor wanted," said Westcott.
"Tulsa leaders have been asking the federal government for help, and the response has been 'help us help you,'" he said.
While he said neither he nor other officers have an official position on the policy, TPD spokesman Officer Jason Willingham echoed Barnes and others' objections when he said the Tulsa County Sheriff's office "is already doing this, so (the resolution) is a bit redundant in nature."
He also said, if the resolution is implemented, "it will take manpower and officers off the street," depending on what procedures are set up for the department.
If they set it up so that the immigration status checks are done as a part of the criminal background checks already routinely performed on detainees, Willingham said the only drain it would create on police resources is the requirement to push one more button on a computer.
However, if the resolution means a telephone call to ICE every time an illegal alien is detained, the time and manpower the requirement would consume could begin to add up, depending on how quickly ICE responds, said Willingham.
And he doesn't expect that response to be at all rushed, if past experience is any indication.
In fact, Willingham said, even if the resolution goes into effect, he doesn't expect much to change.
"Just because a state law or a city ordinance says to detain them, if there's no cooperation from the federal government, this will just be a revolving door," he said.
"By ICE's own admission, they're not interested in Joe-Q-immigrant who's just trying to make a living; their concern is for terrorists and violent offenders," said Willingham.
Eagleton, though, said the requirement is "not going to be an egregious inconvenience."
Based on his discussions with Sullivan, the councilor said an immigration status check can be done via computer and only take, on average, about 90 seconds.
While Eagleton said he's concerned, of course, with getting dangerous criminals off the street, the main purpose behind the checks is to get accurate data in the hands of ICE so they can justify a permanent office in Tulsa.
The Mayor has so far been silent about the Council reversing itself on the compromise agreement, but only spoke publicly on the issue of illegal immigration after her meeting with Sullivan.
"I appreciate Congressman Sullivan taking the time to meet," she said. "Our goal was to improve communications with ICE and find ways we can work together to improve public safety in Tulsa."
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