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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti Weighs In On Immigration Debate


Recently we learned about how Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents sometimes describe themselves as police when they arrive on someone's doorstep looking to make an arrest.


JOEL RUBIN: The ICE agents are law enforcement officers, but certainly when somebody hears police - open up, or, I'm a police officer, they're not thinking Immigration. They're thinking the local cop on the street.

CORNISH: Los Angeles Times reporter Joel Rubin told us this happens often in LA, an area where 1 in 10 residents are immigrants living in the country illegally. The LA Times report drew the attention of the city's mayor who has since written ICE to tell them to cut it out. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti is here with us now to talk more. Welcome to the program.

ERIC GARCETTI: Thank you, Audie. Great to be with you.

CORNISH: Now, Mayor Garcetti, what ICE is doing is not illegal, and ICE agents wear uniforms that have the word police on them in large letters. They are law enforcement. What's the problem here?

GARCETTI: Well, it certainly is legal for them to do it, but we've worked for decades in Los Angeles to build trust between our law enforcement community and our immigration community. And that's undermined when they in the future might not open a door because they think that somebody saying police might be ICE. When they open a door because someone says police, they might think that there's something going on that they need to help the police with only to find out that in fact it may be somebody who is coming to get a family member or do something that would destroy, you know, the fabric of their family.

That I think is destructive to safety on our streets. I don't want to see witnesses begin to withdraw. I don't want to see them not trust the police or respond to police. That's a cornerstone of our work here in Los Angeles, and that's been through conservative to, you know, more liberal police chiefs for almost four decades. And I guess I'm too pro-police to stop listening to them. But it's important to keep those lanes I think very separate.

CORNISH: When we called Immigration and Customs Enforcement today about this story, they said that the word police is universally recognized and that it's, quote, "life or death" to be able to quickly communicate that they are law enforcement in a way that most people can understand. Have you heard any more from ICE directly on this?

GARCETTI: We haven't yet. In this case, you know, when we certainly see the great majority of folks who are not committing serious felonies, may have the only unlawful record of entering the country unlawfully - that we need to be fixing a broken system, turning out more citizens instead of creating more criminals. It's really a request from law enforcement to law enforcement, not about the politics of the situation.

CORNISH: The president has in the meantime signed an executive order ramping up the program known as 287(g), which basically deputizes local law enforcement officers to double as federal immigration agents - right? - to make those kinds of arrests. Will the LAPD be embracing this? Could that further muddy the waters?

GARCETTI: We will not be participating in that. From a practical perspective, this policy came in for two reasons. One, we needed, as I said, to build that trust with immigrant and diverse communities where we need people to feel strong enough to be witnesses to crime, to talk to police officers.

But second, we don't have the manpower to do that. That's the responsibility of the federal government. And I certainly don't want to pull those resources away to do enforcement of federal immigration laws that I believe are broken and need to be fixed comprehensively, not attacks on our families, attacks on our economy and attacks on our safety on our streets.

CORNISH: Mayor Garcetti, the last time you were on NPR, you disputed the idea that LA is a, quote, "sanctuary city," meaning one that will refuse to cooperate with certain immigration orders. You said that you didn't really understand the label. But since then, immigration advocates in your city are saying you're sending a weak and conflicting message on this issue. What's your response to that?

GARCETTI: Oh, I am proud. Los Angeles is the strongest defender of immigrants perhaps of any city in this country.

CORNISH: But will you be using the term sanctuary city, which seems to be what they're focused on?

GARCETTI: Sure. My point in that interview was there's no legal definition, and it was a poke perhaps at Congress and the administration that every attempt to take away dollars based on a definition - you can't do it because it doesn't exist. But we absolutely are a city that not only does provide sanctuary to immigrants, but we defend them. I think that's a step further.

And instead of getting caught up in terms, it's important for us to do the work to defend refugees, immigrants, legal immigrants and those undocumented immigrants who haven't committed serious violent felonies who we should make citizens. And I think the proof is in the pudding. LA stands strong. We are probably the strongest city in the country when it comes to that, and we're not going to back down.

CORNISH: Eric Garcetti is mayor of Los Angeles. Thank you for speaking with us.

GARCETTI: You're very welcome. Great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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