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Officer Huy Nguyen is a 16-year veteran of the Oakland Police Department in California and says he had an unusual journey to becoming an officer there. “When I was 10 years old,” he says, “my family in Vietnam paid a sum of money to a fisherman to smuggle me out of Vietnam. And when I escaped from Vietnam, I ended up in a refugee camp in the Philippines. I was allowed into United States, and when I was 21 years old, 10 years after living in this country, I was given a job as a police officer by the city of Oakland.”
Nguyen is emblematic of what many experts say is needed to create a better police force: officers who more accurately reflect the communities they police. He says, “It’s important [for] the Vietnamese community here in Oakland to have Vietnamese officers.”
In Oakland, 17 percent of the population in is Asian, while the police force is only 12 percent Asian, but that’s up from a department that was only 9 percent Asian in 2000.
Michael Jenkin of the University of Scranton says, “It is in a police department’s interest to hire immigrants as police officers in communities where they have a large immigrant population. We know, based on the tenets of community policing, that it’s important for police departments to represent the ethnic and racial makeup of their communities.”
As the nation’s police face increasing criticism for failing to diversify their ranks, many departments are looking to hire more immigrants. California, for example, allows municipalities to hire police officers who are noncitizens with green cards. “No one’s precluded from applying,” says Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa of the Oakland Police Department. “In fact, we encourage people with immigrant status to apply at the Oakland Police Department because it does give us that breadth of experience that we’re looking for.”
But other big city police departments require new officers to be citizens, including New York, Houston, Miami and Seattle.
Ali Noorani is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for immigrants’ rights. He points out that there are almost 25,000 noncitizens serving in the U.S. military. None of them, he says, are eligible to serve as police officers in most states because of their immigration status.
“Right now immigrants who are here legally can go to Afghanistan and protect the United States of America overseas,” he says. “But in far too many cities across the country, they cannot come back to their own community and serve and protect their neighbors. And there’s something out of whack when you think about it that way.”
But some critics, like Mark Kirkorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for immigration reduction, says there’s a real danger to hiring citizens of other countries as police officers in the U.S.
He says, “You are creating a precedent and sending a kind of message that full belonging to the American community is not something that’s required if you’re going to be a representative — a legal, armed, badge-wearing representative — of that community.”
But Figueroa thinks noncitizens have as much of a commitment to being police officers as people with full citizenship, “The logic in me says if I had no commitment to this country and were going to be somewhere else or thinking about going back home, why would I put a uniform on and give my life for people that live here? And then only to be not committed to something? It just doesn’t follow for me.”
And for Nguyen, hiring immigrant police — whether citizens or not — may be the key to bringing police closer to the communities they serve. He says, “Oftentimes, there’s a barrier between the police and the community. So trying to get a reflection of the community is always a positive thing to do. It allows both parties to open up and build a dialogue with each other and help improve the relationship between the police department and the community.”
As police around the nation struggle with the problem of a growing distrust of police, they’re finding part of the solution may be to hire officers from their immigrant communities. The big question is, should those immigrant officers also be citizens?