OGDEN — If anyone knows about walking the fine line between enforcing the law and gaining the trust of the immigrant community, it’s Diana Lopez.
She’s the community outreach coordinator for the Ogden Police Department, but she first came to the United States as an undocumented migrant from Mexico.
She was the first person in her family to attend middle school. She became a U.S. citizen just before her 18th birthday and her first year at Weber State University. Just a few years ago, she received a master’s in business administration.
“I like to share that story. I think it brings a different side and puts a face on what we talk about with people who are undocumented,” she said. “I’d like to hope I’m a positive influence.”
For her job, Lopez is constantly out among the immigrant community. She visits churches, nonprofits and schools. She isn’t a police officer, and she doesn’t wear a uniform.
Instead, she acts as a liaison between police and the people they serve. And even with all the uncertainty surrounding President-elect Donald Trump coming into office with promises to deport undocumented immigrants, she wants to make it clear that police are here to protect and serve all Ogden residents.
“We’re not immigration — we don’t want to be immigration — so we don’t treat anyone differently when it comes to their status,” she said.
At the county level, Lt. Nate Hutchinson with the Weber County Sheriff’s Office emphasized that state and local law enforcement don’t have the authority to arrest someone they suspect crossed the border illegally.
“The only ones who have that power are (agents) with the federal government,” he said. “Whether it’s the sheriff’s office or Ogden City police, we don’t have those powers.”
And although Trump’s “10 Point Plan to Put America First” vows to remove “criminal aliens” through a joint effort with local law enforcement from “day one,” Hutchinson doesn’t expect a federal mandate requiring local authorities to begin targeting undocumented immigrants.
“I myself don’t see any type of future where local law enforcement or state law enforcement is enforcing immigration,” he said. "I know (Trump) said some things during the election, but I’m the same as everyone else — sitting back and seeing how things will go.”
Even when an undocumented person is booked into jail for committing a crime, local law enforcement currently has no way of verifying their status. An undocumented inmate is processed through the jail and court system identically to U.S. citizens.
“We don’t hold people for any immigration violations. We don’t even look into it,” Hutchinson said. “No one has ever been arrested and brought in simply because they were here illegally.”
Immigration rights advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah stress, too, that people residing in the United States without proper documentation aren’t criminals by virtue of their status.
“They may be in violation of a particular civil law, but it’s not like they’ve committed a horrific crime by being here,” said Anna Thomas, spokeswoman for the ACLU of Utah. “That’s why there’s a civil procedure for dealing with these things.”
Still, many immigrants fall victim to crimes but don’t report it to law enforcement for fear of being deported. That’s one of Lopez’s biggest challenges. Beyond educating the community, one of Lopez’s roles is to serve as an advocate for victims fearful of reporting crimes.
“We need them to come forward. A lot of (criminals) roam around the streets because our witnesses and victims are afraid to come forward,” she said.
The most common underreported crime among Ogden’s immigrant community is domestic violence. That’s because in many immigrants’ home countries, domestic abuse isn’t considered a crime, Lopez said.
Neither are things such as drunk driving or drinking under the legal age. Lopez works to educate foreign-born residents about laws in the United States and how the policing system works, too.
“One time, in one of my presentations, I had a gentleman from South America pose a very interesting question,” Lopez said. “He asked, ‘What is a crime? I don’t know what a crime is here.’ He didn’t know our laws are so vastly different.”
Those misunderstanding can sometimes stoke the fears unauthorized immigrants have of U.S. law enforcement. Both the Obama administration and Trump administration said deporting convicted criminals would be their priority. But that often leads to people navigating a convoluted system of deportation proceedings for relatively minor crimes — things they might not have even known were crimes in the first place.
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“We end up removing people who bring much more benefit than public safety risk,” Thomas said. “All sorts of young people come here as kids. They’re brilliant, they work hard, get educated and want to put those skills to work for their communities in the U.S. ... Most immigrants work and pay taxes without being able to receive benefits. They also do a lot of work that nobody else wants to do. I think sometimes that’s not acknowledged as much as it could be.”
Although Hutchinson said they don’t report criminals they suspect are undocumented to federal authorities like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, local officers will work with federal agents when asked.
“If ICE somehow found out someone was being held and wanted them turned over, we’d cooperate,” he said.
Lopez said she understands the desire among many to try and build a life in the United States despite the risks.
“When I was in my early 20s, we went to Mexico, and I was able to fully understand the difference in the life I have now versus the life I would have had had we stayed in very small town where I was born,” she said.
Had she stayed, she likely would not have been educated past elementary school. She likely would have married young. And, she says, she likely wouldn’t be doing the important work she is today.
“Education was a luxury my parents weren’t able to have. They had to work to survive,” she said. “My dad started coming to the U.S. trying to find a place for my mom and I ... I think he just realized he wanted something different.”