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Willmar Mayor Les Heitke makes a point Monday following a discussion on a proposal calling for Willmar police officers to receive immigration enforcement training from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Heitke said he attended a convention recently of 85 Minnesota mayors and learned that no city in Minnesota uses the ICE program. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

City Council returns ICE issue to committee for further discussion

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WILLMAR -- Willmar City Council members want more discussion before deciding whether the police department should be trained to enforce federal immigration laws.

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Council members Monday night debated the possibility of contracting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train the Police Department in immigration enforcement, and agreed the issue should return to the Public Works/Safety Committee for more discussion.

Last month, council member Steve Ahmann asked Police Chief Jim Kulset to research the 287(g) Program.

The program is an ICE initiative that lets state and local law enforcement entities enter into a contract to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions. The local entity would receive enforcement training.

Ahmann's request was referred to committee and the committee passed the issue on to the council for more discussion.

Some council members say they want comments from citizens and groups.

Ahmann said he thinks involving the community "is great.'' He said he doesn't favor dividing the community but wants to enrich it. However, he's concerned that citizens he knows are afraid to speak out against those that they know are living here illegally.

"And that has been my concern. That's the primary reason I bring this forward,'' said Ahmann. "I thought it would be another tool (for police department enforcement). If it takes this process to get the community interested in it, I think it's great.''

Council member Denis Anderson said the issue "seems on its face to be almost a no-brainer for us. What I would really like to see is some folks that might potentially be impacted or maybe we should get our community liaison officer Charly Leuze or someone to maybe provide us with some insight and knowledge of how this could have a negative impact or a perceived negative impact. There's got to be another side to the story and I would hope we would get someone to speak to that.''

Council member Jim Dokken said ICE is responsible for enforcing federal immigration laws as part of its homeland security mission.

"It's only been since 2009 that this particular 287(g) has been around ... strengthening public safety and ensuring consistency in immigration enforcement across the country by prioritizing arrests and detention of criminal aliens,'' he read from ICE information.

"I agree we need to have some further discussion with the public on this. It just seems to me that what they say in here is a worthwhile program,'' he said.

After council members completed their comments, Mayor Les Heitke said he attended a convention last weekend of 85 Minnesota mayors, along with League of Minnesota Cities staff, and was told that no city in Minnesota uses the ICE program.

The mayors of five metro suburbs said they were not interested because they felt it would interrupt the trust relationships that their local police departments were building with the minority community in their cities.

Looking at ICE website information, Heitke said only the Minnesota Department of Public Safety uses the program. "That would be fitting that they would use it,'' he said.

Heitke said he heard at the Public Works Committee that Willmar has an excellent working relationship with ICE and that ICE will cover costs associated with immigration enforcement. If Willmar were to train someone, then it becomes the city's cost, he said.

Heitke was four minutes into his comments, saying Willmar has spent almost 12 years beating down the image as a racist town, when Ahmann called point of order.

"Let's conduct the meeting. I didn't realize this was going to be a personal commentary by you, Mister Mayor, but this is consuming our time and I think it should be referred back to committee,'' Ahmann said.

Heitke agreed to end his comments. He said the issue needs more public discussion, perhaps with school district and business representatives, "but this is a very difficult issue to suddenly put into the community.''

Heitke added, "You were right. I think I went too far. Thank you.''

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David Little
David Little covers the Willmar City Council, Willmar Municipal Utilities and other city news.
(320) 235-1150
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