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Officials fear Arizona-type immigration law in Clearwater

CLEARWATER — They brought the woman to Florida from Guatemala, promising her a housekeeping job. Instead, they turned her into a prostitute.

And, according to Clearwater police, members of the sex trafficking ring gave her a chilling warning: Don't even think about going to police. Cops, they told her, will show you no mercy.

From incidents like this, Clearwater police Chief Tony Holloway learned a lesson about mixing immigration policy with local law enforcement. People like the young woman — undocumented but the victim of a human-trafficking operation — are "not going to report the crime. That's how you breed these organized crimes."

This helps explain why Holloway wants no part of an Arizona-style immigration law in Florida.

Holloway's view is significant because Clearwater is home to Pinellas County's largest percentage of Hispanic and Latino residents. The most recent estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show that about 13 percent of Clearwater's 100,000 residents are Hispanic. Because many undocumented immigrants go uncounted, the actual number could be 20 percent or higher.

"It's not my job to figure out who's documented or undocumented," Holloway said. "We're going to go after the people who are undocumented and are committing crimes. I'll be the first one to contact (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) about people who are committing sexual assaults, burglaries … violent crimes."

A federal judge pulled the teeth from Arizona's new immigration law last week, specifically the requirement that law enforcement officers check the immigration status of people they encounter during arrests and traffic stops. But the state is appealing. In Florida, some Republicans plan to pursue a similar law in the next legislative session.

Holloway fears the possible consequences.

He pointed to the recent arrests of a couple accused of a series of armed robberies targeting Hispanic men. Cooperation from victims helped police find the suspects.

"We want them coming to the badge, not running from the badge," he said. "If they don't report the crimes to us, we won't be aware of what's going on in the community."

In the 1990s, Clearwater police helped immigration officials conduct "sweeps," only to learn that the majority of illegal immigrants detained were released and never deported, former police Chief Sid Klein said.

After that — and with insight gained through former Deputy Chief Dewey Williams' 2000 visit to Hidalgo, Mexico, hometown to many of Clearwater's Mexican immigrants — the Police Department distanced itself from those efforts and started looking for ways to bridge the gap between officers and undocumented residents.

About a decade ago, the Police Department donated $50,000 in drug seizure funds toward opening the Hispanic Outreach Center. A Spanish-speaking officer is dedicated as a liaison to the center, which in turn provides volunteer translators to assist police.

The Police Department also has focused on getting more Spanish-speaking officers on the streets, most recently receiving a grant for materials to teach Spanish to dozens of officers.

Sandra Lyth, chief executive director of the Hispanic Outreach Center, said there is "definitely an elevated fear level" among Clearwater's Hispanic residents, who are very much aware of Arizona's new law and Florida's proposed legislation.

Lyth agreed that a new law could have a chilling effect on residents' cooperation with police.

"There would definitely be an impact in the number of crimes reported and the willingness of the community to come forward, which has been a challenge anyway," she said.

Lyth said she's a proponent of federal legislation to address immigration issues, particularly those dealing with children.

"We need comprehensive immigration reform and that is the federal government's responsibility to make that happen," she said.

"It's a shame there's such a vacuum that we're trying to solve the issues at the local level when we need the federal government's engagement."

Officials fear Arizona-type immigration law in Clearwater 07/31/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 3, 2010 6:23pm]
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