Undocumented Immigrants Exploited As Confidential Informants

(Credit: Sodanie Chea)

A recent investigation by The Salt Lake Tribune found that police officers in Utah used immigration status as leverage to exploit immigrants into becoming confidential informants with the promise of legalization. Although prohibited in Utah’s West Valley City, informants were recruited through questionable methods and forced to infiltrate drug cartels and to go undercover as gang members. They are a part of a larger group of immigrants who have to deal with the threat of deportation back to a country with people who would kill them when they wanted to leave their informant life behind.

The federal government sets aside an annual allocation of 200 informant-specific visas to immigrant witnesses or informant, but very few are ever issued. In 2012, only one criminal informant visa was issued. Even without the visas, though, ICE spent over $9.5 million on informants in 2009.

Lt. Troy Burnett of the Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force explained why police departments like Utah employ undocumented confidential informant: “Why would we try to limit ourselves?” he asked. “Especially with a section of society that is responsible for bringing a majority of that into our community.”

But Tony Yapias of the immigration advocacy group Proyecto Latino de Utah disagrees. He cites many tales of undocumented immigrants whose strongest immigration fears and hopes are completely reliant on law enforcement officials: “I don’t believe using someone’s legal immigration status should be used to get information,” he said. “Of course, it makes [those people] more vulnerable.”

In different parts of Utah, the employment of undocumented informants is used on a case-by-case basis. The Salt Lake City police department prohibits asking about immigration status when using an undocumented informant, but West Valley City explicitly prohibits using undocumented immigrants as informants.

The misleading methods that officers employ speak to the heartrendingly long immigrant history of being exploited. Immigrants are often treated little more than expendable assets that law enforcement use and abuse. It is hardly surprising then that a recent study showed the fading trust of Hispanic immigrants with the police.

A Senate immigration bill amendment that failed would have prevented some informants from receiving legal status because they may be placed in a database that documents gang affiliations. The amendment failed by a small margin, so it seems likely that the more conservative House immigration bill may try to draft a similar measure. Even though law enforcement agencies can give recommendations, what they often fail to inform the immigrants is that only immigration judges have the authorization to give out S-visas.