The Chief
December 3, 2004

Police May Win OK To Hire Legal Aliens

Bill Would End Ban by Finest, Bravest

By Daniela Gerson

An immigrant with a green card can serve America in Iraq as a soldier, but only a citizen can become a police officer or firefighter in New York City.

About 37,000 permanent legal residents are enlisted in the American armed forces, according to statistics from the Department of Defense. In New York City, meanwhile, where nearly 40% of residents are foreign-born and more than 200 languages are spoken, only citizens can serve the city’s Police and Fire departments.

At City Hall, a movement is afoot to place these municipal agencies’ requirements on par with the military – and with other city agencies, such as the Department of Education or the Health and Hospitals Corporation.

City Council Members David Yassky, Kendall Stewart, and Yvette Clark, all of Brooklyn, introduced a bill last week to amend the city’s administrative code so that legal permanent residents would be eligible to serve with New York’s Bravest and New York’s Finest.

“It seems to me, if you can serve in the armed forces you certainly ought to be able to serve in the New York Police Department and Fire Department,” Mr. Yassky said. “I don’t see what the rationale is. If it’s some sort of loyalty issue, for goodness’ sake, if the country trusts permanent residents to serve in the military… certainly we in New York should be able to trust permanent residents. More so, as we continue to work toward a police department that works closely with the community it polices, having immigrants in the Police Department will help reach that goal.”

Officials of the two departments declined to comment on the council proposal yesterday, as did the mayor’s office.

The departments’ unions have been deadlocked in contract negotiations with the city for more than two years, and critics of the amendment are quick to express concern that opening up the positions to noncitizens is a ploy to lower the salaries of union members.

Allowing noncitizens to serve in local police and fire departments is a move that Los Angeles and Honolulu, among other cities, have already made.

“This move to allow noncitizens to become police officers is just another attempt to broaden the pool of candidates for the NYPD because of the serious recruiting and retention problems that exist because of noncompetitive compensation,” the president of the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, said through a spokesman. Both departments’ unions, demanding higher wages and better benefits, have been without a contract since July 2002.

Allowing noncitizens to serve in local police and fire departments is a move that various cities around the country, such as Los Angeles and Honolulu, have already made. Some cities simply require police officers and firefighters to be permanent legal residents, while others have taken measures to accept only immigrants who have indicated intent to become American citizens.

The city of Los Angeles, for example, allows a permanent resident who has applied for citizenship to apply to become a police officer or a firefighter. Additionally, California law requires that the public employee have achieved citizenship within three years of the employment application.

Employing permanent legal residents in city agencies poses fewer potential problems than does allowing noncitizens to perform military service, according to the director of the Center for Immigration Studies, Mark Krikorian.

In the military, he said, the “potential for espionage, conflicted loyalties, is significant,” but similar concerns do not exist at a local level. Mr. Krikorian, whose institution promotes greater instructions on immigration, did not go so far as to endorse a change to New York law, but he said allowing firefighters and police officers to be noncitizens could be an important way to reach out to immigrant communities.

The director of the Queens-based New Immigrant Community Empowerment, Bryan Pu-Folkes, said he has seen serious communications problems for both agencies with foreign-born communities.

In particular, while he described the Police Department as “well intentioned,” he said he has heard extensive complaints of cultural and language barriers. “Sometimes it will take years to develop trust between the police and immigrant communities,” he said.

Many immigrants say they are afraid to contact the NYPD. Noncitizens often avoid the police out of fears of deportation. Some come to New York from dictatorial countries or ones with a tradition of corrupt police forces. Others simply lack the language skills to communicate effectively.

“Historically, the Police Department has not been able to catch up to the incredible influx of languages in New York City. While some things have been done, a lot more has to happen for them to be able to adequately serve the population,” Mr. Pu-Folkes said, referring to measures such as the creation of an immigrant outreach unit, a database tracking officers’ language abilities, and the launch of a pilot translation service in Queens.