North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt joined other chiefs Thursday to highlight their view that immigration reform is critical to maintaining public safety.
"From my perspective, I need help," Zumalt said.
Austin (Texas) Police Chief Art Acevedo and Topeka (Kan.) Police Chief Ron Miller joined Zumalt to say that immigration reform is needed to fight crime now. They also said any reform should not rely overly on local police to enforce federal immigration laws. Such a step would only break down trust between police and those they serve, they said.
Zumalt pointed to a March crime in which illegal immigrant Orlando Benitez was shot and killed in the Hawthorne City mobile home park by a gang of thieves who rifled through his pockets as his 5-year-old daughter watched.
Three have been arrested in the case, but Zumalt pointed out that the crime shows how illegal immigrants often are being targeted.
"That's victimization, and I'm not going to allow anyone be victimized in my community, regardless of their status of immigration," he said. "If I'm going to be asked by someone to step in and enforce immigration laws, those folks are going to hide from us and yet they're still going to be victimized. I'm not going to tolerate that."
The chiefs' conference call comes one week before the White House has scheduled a meeting on immigration reform.
While the lack of immigration reform encourages criminals to prey on immigrants, many of whom are Hispanic, the larger community has a stake in stopping this crime, the chiefs said.
"We have the potential of losing the only witness who can provide the license plate of a kidnapper or a terrorist who might do harm to us," Acevedo said.
Miller said if undocumented persons commit illegal acts, "they should be prosecuted just like anyone else and deported, but if they're victims of crime, they should receive the same investigative support that anyone else would receive. The problem is, they won't talk to us."
Zumalt said both he and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey are trying to build bridges with the city's illegal immigrant community, with some success, but the problem remains. Previous estimates have placed undocumented workers in South Carolina at about 75,000, but the number could be much higher. There are an estimated 10 million to 20 million nationwide.
"In 2007, I had the 10th most violent city in the country," Zumalt added. "That was largely because of street robberies and shootings, and many of the victims were illegal immigrants."