As police departments across the United States struggle with recruiting and retaining officers, some states are turning to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients — a previously untapped pool of applicants — to fill their job vacancies.
For instance, California, Utah and Colorado have already passed laws permitting noncitizens authorized to work in the U.S. to become police officers.
These laws specifically target beneficiaries of the DACA program, allowing them to pursue law enforcement careers.
The DACA program offers protections against deportation to individuals who arrived in the U.S. without legal status before turning 16 and have continuously lived in the country since at least 2007. Presently, there are approximately 580,000 active DACA recipients in the U.S.
Among these DACA recipients is Christian Alberto Mendoza-Almendarez, 30, who was brought to the U.S. at the age of 7 after his family fled Mexico’s drug cartels.
Dreaming of becoming a police officer since he was a child, Mendoza-Almendarez currently serves as a neighborhood liaison with the Austin Police Department in Texas. However, due to his immigration status, he is ineligible to become a police officer in Texas and is considering moving to California or Colorado to fulfill his dream.
The new laws represent a significant shift in requirements for law enforcement positions. California, for instance, had previously mandated that police officers be U.S. citizens or permanent residents eligible for citizenship. Colorado’s new measure, signed into law by Governor Jared Polis in April, has done away with the prohibition for DACA recipients to carry firearms.
Advocates of these laws argue that noncitizens who are authorized to work in the U.S. can already serve in the military, making law enforcement work a natural extension.
Art Acevedo, the interim chief of police for the Aurora Police Department in Colorado, who himself immigrated to the U.S. as a child, believes that a person’s nation of origin should not determine their suitability for a law enforcement career.
“It’s a smart policy, especially with fewer and fewer people wanting to go into law enforcement,” Acevedo said.
However, critics of the legislation argue that law enforcement careers should be reserved exclusively for U.S. citizens, expressing concerns over noncitizens carrying firearms or having the power to arrest citizens.
“It’s just a fundamentally bad idea,” Illinois Republican Senator Chapin Rose said during the hearing in May. “I don’t care where this individual is from. Australia — they should not be able to arrest a United States citizen on United States soil.”
Law enforcement experts attribute the current struggle by police departments to recruit and retain officers to various factors, including the stresses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, a decline in officers’ morale and protests following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
Others attribute the decrease to calls for accountability and police reform as well as officers leaving for higher paying jobs in the private sector.
Joseph Farrow, the chief of police for the University of California, Davis, played a crucial role in promoting SB 960, which was signed into law in September 2022, which removed the provision that required peace officers in California to be citizens.
Instead, the law now requires peace officers to be legally authorized to work in the U.S.
Supporters of the new laws emphasize that they do not lower the employment standards for law enforcement positions. Applicants, including DACA recipients, must still undergo thorough vetting, medical and psychological exams, pass fitness tests, attend the academy and meet other stringent criteria.
DeLacy Davis, a retired police officer and community policing expert, further challenged the notion that citizenship should be the determining factor in effective policing, pointing out that some of the most notable incidents of police violence involved American citizens.
“I don’t think that we can draw clear lines in the sand and determine, ‘Oh, you’re not a citizen, you can’t be qualified. You are a citizen, you must be a good person,’” he said. “The people who killed Breonna Taylor, the people who killed Tyre Nichols, the people who killed George Floyd, all of those were American citizens.”
Advocates of the new laws also argue that hiring DACA beneficiaries and lawful permanent residents will help diversify law enforcement ranks and foster better relationships with immigrant communities.
Laurence Benenson, vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, stated that the laws offer opportunities to those who are already contributing in various areas and will help address staffing issues that predate the pandemic.
“We believe that hiring lawful permanent residents and Dreamers who work in law enforcement jobs is a common sense idea … and then we’ll also have an additional benefit of helping those law enforcement agencies better reach communities that they work with, particularly in jurisdictions that have significant immigrant populations.”