By KATE BRUMBACK
Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA - Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson joined law enforcement and religious leaders Tuesday in calling for immigration reform to increase the security of local communities and improve the treatment of immigrants.
In a panel discussion at Atlanta's Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, Johnson called for "commonsense American solutions" to repair the country's "broken immigration system."
Holding the event at the King Center was symbolic because immigration reform is ultimately a human rights issue, Johnson said.
Arturo Venegas, a former police chief in Sacramento, Calif., said immigrants in many communities distrust the police and that makes them hesitate to report crimes.
But for local communities to be secure, it's important for immigrants to cooperate with law enforcement officers because "the community is our eyes and ears," said Venegas, of the Law Enforcement Engagement Initiative, a group of law enforcement leaders from around the country that pushes for immigration reform.
"We do not want anyone to be afraid of calling the police," he said.
High-profile agreements signed between local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that deputize local agencies to enforce federal immigration laws have caused fear in immigrant communities. Critics claim the agreements lead to racial profiling and arrests for minor offenses that can lead to detention and possible deportation.
But Venegas stressed that fewer than 80 of the nation's more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies participate in the program, which was created to target violent and habitual offenders. Most local agencies, he said, want no part of immigration enforcement because it pulls resources from departments that are already stretched thin.
Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington, a past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and a member of the Major Cities Chiefs of Police Association, said both organizations are committed to comprehensive immigration reform. But the speakers didn't propose any concrete solutions, saying they would leave that up to Congress and the president.
"We think it's important to include law enforcement on these issues," he said. "We would like to be invited to the table, to be part of the discussion."
Johnson said it is important to secure the borders but also to provide some sort of humane solution for the estimated 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
"Enforcement of our laws is only one side of the equation," said Archbishop Wilton Gregory of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta. "Laws must also be created that are workable and just, and must emphasize legality over illegality."
Tuesday's panel came a day after President Barack Obama, speaking in Mexico, said immigration reform would likely have to wait until early next year.