SPRINGFIELD — A bill aimed at clearing a path for recipients of a federal immigration program to become police officers — and at the same time helping departments that say they are struggling with recruitment — is moving forward with bipartisan support in the state legislature, but only after being amended to make clear that potential hires need to get federal approval to carry a gun.
Federal law generally bars noncitizens from carrying guns unless it’s for “official use,” meaning police officers who are not U.S. citizens would not be allowed to carry the weapons off-duty, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
That presents a problem even for a co-sponsor of the bill, who said cops need guns when off-duty for personal safety as well as to provide greater public security.
“Unfortunately, it’s strictly symbolic,” state Rep. John Cabello, a Republican from Machesney Park who is a detective with the Rockford Police Department, said of the bill. “It doesn’t do anything until the feds do something about the federal law.”
The measure’s Democratic sponsor in the House is state Rep. Barbara Hernandez, whose aim is to help recipients of the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, become police officers while also giving law enforcement agencies another option for recruiting. There are tens of thousands of DACA recipients living in Illinois.
Cabello and Hernandez said they’ve been trying to get the attention of the U.S. Congress to push for a change in the federal law.
“I just want a small door (open) for a certain group of people to be able to carry a gun. I’m not saying all undocumented people. I’m just saying if you apply and you are accepted, let’s give you a chance to own, to carry or possess a gun,” Hernandez said. “And maybe what the federal government can say is once you retire, or once you’re out of the job for whatever reason, you don’t have that ability anymore.”
She said she got the idea for the bill after California passed a measure in the last year that allows DACA recipients to become cops. About a half-dozen other states have passed similar legislation. But her bill didn’t get Cabello’s support until Hernandez agreed to add language about how aspiring DACA police officers were “subject to federal approval” with regard to when they can carry guns.
The legislation passed 101-0 in the Illinois House on March 24 and is now before the Senate, where it already has two sponsors.
At least one suburban police department has already begun the process of hiring DACA recipients, also known as “Dreamers.” In January, an independent commission overseeing the Blue Island Police Department began to allow noncitizens with a federal Employment Authorization Document to apply to become officers.
So far, the department has one recruit who is a DACA recipient and at least three other DACA applicants who are eligible to be hired, Blue Island police Chief Geoffery Farr said.
Farr acknowledged that those officers would not be allowed to take their guns home with them. Farr said hiring DACA recipients still could help his department because about half of Blue Island’s population is Hispanic, and he doesn’t have many Spanish-speaking officers.
“It, at times, is difficult to provide the services to the community without being able to communicate with them,” Farr said. “It’s important that the police department reflects the makeup of the community and what better means do we have than to recruit Hispanic officers.”
Cabello said he supports the bill because it could provide police departments with additional options for recruitment if they are struggling to keep up with attrition. Some observers trace the issue to the May 2020 police-custody murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which some crime experts say exacerbated a deeply rooted distrust of police in many Black and brown communities across the country.
Cabello blamed the passage in 2021 of the SAFE-T Act — the sweeping criminal justice law that, among other things, increased oversight of police — for driving away some cops and possibly dissuading others from becoming police officers in Illinois.
The Chicago Police Department had 11,711 officers as of March, down from 13,119 in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, according to data from Chicago’s inspector general’s office. Last month, the department announced it was launching a new effort to win back retired Chicago police officers and hire sworn cops serving other law enforcement agencies.
The need for more police led to a rare show of bipartisanship on a public safety issue in the General Assembly, which is often deeply divided on that topic, when the DACA bill was being crafted.
”We need a lot of good candidates to come forward to try to help fill the gap because I’m not sure that’s going to happen,” Cabello said. “We’re not going to be the party of ‘no.’ We’re going to be the party of good policy.”
Hernandez said she was surprised to see support from across the aisle because some people “don’t understand what DACA means.”
”I know a lot of people label this as only for Latinos, but this is not for only Latinos. This is for a lot of different immigrants,” she said. “They’re coming here illegally or were already brought here at an early age and they’re not aware that they’re illegal. And they deserve an opportunity to apply and become an officer.”
Farr, the Blue Island police chief, and his recruit who is part of DACA testified before an Illinois House committee in March in support of the bill. Farr told the Tribune that it would be unfair to prevent DACA recipients from getting a chance at becoming cops.
“There’s a segment of the population who cannot vote and cannot carry a gun. Those are usually referred to as convicted felons,” Farr said. “So in essence, the DACA recipients have the same restrictions upon them that convicted felons do. So that ain’t right.”
Chicago Tribune’s Laura Rodriguez Presa contributed.
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April 7, 2023 at 01:31PM