Hawaii immigration attorneys and Maui residents are raising concerns about a Maui County Council bill to approve an agreement between local police and federal immigration and customs officials.

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The proposal would authorize the mayor to enter into an agreement with the homeland security division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, allowing federal officials to designate Maui police officers as customs officers and train them in the use of body cameras.

The Maui County Council is considering the bill in a committee hearing on Wednesday.

During a virtual committee hearing on Nov. 16, Maui County prosecuting attorney Andrew Martin testified that immigrant advocates’ worries were misplaced.

He emphasized the agreement between Maui Police Department and ICE explicitly prohibits police officers from having the authority to enforce immigration law violations.

“This has nothing to do with immigration at all,” Martin said in an interview Tuesday. “The type of agreements that everyone is concerned about is not this.”

Rather, the agreement will help provide resources to Maui County officers to investigate child exploitation, financial exploitation and drug trafficking, Martin said, adding that Maui police have had this partnership in place for several years.

“We want to identify and prosecute pedophiles in our community and that’s what this agreement assists with,” Martin said.

Maui Police Department has never been involved in immigration law enforcement, an agency spokesperson said. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2021

The memorandum of understanding is specifically with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division, not the Enforcement and Removal Operations division. Homeland Security Investigations is “responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats,” the division’s website says. A separate division, Enforcement and Removal Operations, manages deportations.

Still, some Maui residents remain concerned. Kevin Block, an immigration attorney on the Valley Isle, said that the language in the agreement regarding the authority it gives Maui police officers is conflicting.

Block added that even if enforcing immigration law is an exemption to the agreement, formal cooperation between the two agencies could feed fear and distrust in the community.

He’s worried an undocumented domestic violence victim might be less likely to ask for police help if concerned about deportation.

“If you’re going to call the police you want to make sure they aren’t going to ask you questions about your citizenship, place of birth or your Social Security number,” Block said.

MPD spokeswoman Alana Pico said the police department “already has a county-approved MOU” with ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division. She referred Civil Beat to a document that the police department signed on Aug. 4, 2021.

“This is simply a request by (Homeland Security Investigations) to amend the current MOU to address their federal policy on BWC (Body Worn Camera),” Pico wrote in an email.

The MOU would give the police department more access to federal funding, resources and training, “which would otherwise be difficult given the stringent budget allotted to the department each year by the County Council,” she said.

Pico added that the Maui Police Department already works closely with federal immigration officials on cases related to human trafficking, child pornography, drug trafficking and financial exploitation.

“Their financial assistance and resources in these types of investigations are a contributing factor to their success,” Pico said. “Contrary to popular belief, ICE/HSI is not confined to illegal immigration policies nor has MPD ever gotten involved in that type of enforcement.”

Bettina Mok, who leads The Legal Clinic, a nonprofit law firm for immigrants statewide, said even if an agreement between MPD and ICE has already been signed, the County Council could consider ending the agreement.

“The community should be given a chance to ask clarifying questions, to be reassured that they’re not at risk and to be notified way in advance if an agreement like this is put forth,” she said.

Nearly 19% of Maui County’s population is foreign-born, according to U.S. Census American Community Survey data between 2015 and 2019.

Mok noted several cities in California recently rescinded police partnerships with ICE due to public concerns.

She said the agreement between the federal and local agencies raises questions about who will monitor it, how much latitude ICE agents might be given and what records they might get access to.

“While this type of agreement may appear on the surface to bring more resources to the county for greater security, trafficking enforcement,” she said, “it actually has a chilling effect on many people in the community who already fear ICE and who already fear the police.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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