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Undocumented Work

"How do you say 'anti-racial profiling policy' in Spanish?"

It's a question Brian Wolford asked aloud in preparing his opening remarks before a Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network event at St. Paul Cathedral's Synod Hall, in Oakland, on Sept. 13. But perhaps the real question is how well the policy translates onto the streets of Pittsburgh. And at this point, no one is entirely sure.

Before a largely Hispanic audience of roughly 40 people, Wolford began his speech by thanking Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Chief Nate Harper -- who was sitting in the front row -- for implementing a policy to prevent racial profiling in police encounters, particularly when they involve people who may be recent immigrants.

The policy was drafted in April in conjunction with PIIN, University of Pittsburgh professor David Harris and immigration lawyer Jackie Martinez. Generally speaking, it bars city officers from asking for immigration status unless it pertains to a criminal investigation. (Police cannot ask for immigration status during a routine traffic stop, for example.)

Advocates see that restriction as an important guarantee of civil rights. But as Wolford said, "We still have lots of work that we can do and lots of vigilance we can show."

Although the policy marks progress, Wolford said, Pittsburgh itself "is a small part of the community in which we live." Without similar policies in nearby municipalities, he added, immigrants may still be subject to profiling just across the city line.

Even within the city, judging the policy's success "is hard because we don't have concrete data," says PIIN organizer Diana Marin.

The policy itself is an internal document, and Harper recently declined to provide City Paper with a copy of it. It's difficult to see how well the policy is working because Pittsburgh Police also do not report the number of times officers ask people about their citizenship status. Nor does the department track how often undocumented immigrants are turned over to the federal Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) agency. In an e-mail to City Paper, Harper says the police keep only records that are "criminal in nature." And since detaining an immigrant "does not constitute an arrest," the city doesn't record the data.

That doesn't satisfy some. "[Harper] needs to know what's happening out there," immigration lawyer Martinez told the audience in September. "Is the policy working? Is it not working? And why?"

"Communication is key," Harper agrees by e-mail. "My door will always be open."

With the debate about immigration becoming increasingly heated, that alone makes Harper unusual.

Earlier this year, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill allowing police officers to ask for immigration status during any "lawful stop" -- regardless of the nature of any charges. In Pennsylvania, two Pittsburgh-area state representatives, Republican Daryl Metcalfe, of Cranberry and Democrat Harry Readshaw, of Carrick, have cosponsored similar legislation. Governor-elect Tom Corbett, meanwhile, has said he supports more sharing of federal and state responsibilities. During the campaign, Corbett favored enrolling state police in a federal four-week training course whose graduates would be able to help enforce some immigration laws.

That's something PIIN opposes, Marin says, because it overburdens officers who have enough to worry about. Immigrant-rights activists also worry that immigrants are already shy about reporting crime to police.

In the coming months, Marin adds, PIIN hopes to campaign against the program, develop a "response team" to serve as a resource for detained immigrants and gather statistics, and meet with police departments in neighboring municipalities to talk about implementing anti-profiling policies similar to Pittsburgh's.

But in any case, local activists say that things could be worse.

"We have a real historical moment here in Pittsburgh thanks to what Chief Harper has had the courage to do," social worker Sister Janice Vanderneck told the Synod Hall crowd.

Even so, while PIIN has long advocated for comprehensive immigration reform, Marin says that after the November elections, "It's getting harder to have a conversation around what immigration reform really is. Right now, I think our effort -- at least in the next year and a half -- is defeating the myths that are out there."

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