WASHINGTON -- Dentist Charlie Norwood has spent most of his congressional career typecast as an expert in medical law. But since writing one of the toughest plans to deal with illegal aliens, Norwood has become public enemy No. 1 for those seeking a softer approach.
Critics of the Georgia Republican's Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act envision a nightmare scenario in which local police departments are strained and racial profiling runs rampant.
Norwood argues he's not really changing the law, just clarifying the right state and local law enforcement officers already have to arrest suspected illegal immigrants.
"We're just making very clear - you do have the responsibility and the authority to arrest people," Norwood said. "They help us in everything else, but this one area they're really skittish about. Part of it is they're fearful of lawsuits and part of it is that they do their job and the feds don't do theirs."
As was the case with his signature Patients Bill of Rights, Norwood has been rather methodical in promoting the immigration bill - rounding up 93 co-sponsors but not yet even seeking the support of Republican leaders or President Bush. Swift movement in Congress seemed unlikely, and may still be, but the Senate could change that this week.
Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, is crafting a Senate companion version he expects to have ready by Thursday's hearing on immigration and border security. Foes of the approach are mobilizing in case the bill gets some traction at the hearing and makes its way to the congressional calendar next year.
"It sounds good - 'we're trying to enforce immigration laws,"' said Charlie Mitchell, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It has the flashy headline, but that's not really what it does."
Norwood's bill, which he says mainly targets potential terrorists, requires the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to either take custody of suspected illegal immigrants or pay the local police department to house them.
More controversial, however, is its stipulation that all immigration violations - even minor ones - must be included in a federal computerized crime database available to law enforcement officers at all levels of government. If a police officer comes across an immigrant suspected of being illegal, that person would be arrested. Failure to follow the mandate could cost a state or city some of its federal grant money.
"It makes no sense," said Judy Golub, spokeswoman for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "It will hurt enforcement, make community policing more besieged and more difficult."
Sessions says he doesn't understand the outrage about the plan. States and localities already can detain immigrants for questioning, he says, but they often don't for fear they'll be accused of racism. Further, over-stretched immigration officials often refuse to pick up the suspects in a timely manner, if at all.
"I think they have that authority now," Sessions said. "A state police officer or state trooper can arrest the bank president for fraud. He can arrest burglars. He can arrest another police officer. The mentality that has come down is we're not going to come and get them if you detain them, and you're not capable of handling this."
Earlier this month, Alabama became the second state that the federal government officially deemed capable of handling the arrest of suspected illegal immigrants. At Sessions' request, state troopers received formal training on immigration law, and through a process he says was far too bureaucratic, the state and federal government signed a document certifying the troopers. Florida also has completed the process.
While the Sessions and Norwood proposals include grant money for training, they mandate that law enforcement officers - regardless of whether they're trained - would automatically be able to arrest immigrants.
Critics say that is risky because the laws are some of the most complicated on the books and officers will target anyone they think looks like an illegal immigrant. Law enforcement is largely divided on the bill, but Toccoa, Ga., police chief Bill Grant - a supporter - says that won't happen.
"I cannot imagine a chief of police in this country - small town, large town, any town - that would take his resources and go look for illegal aliens," he said.
The bill is H.R. 2671.
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