JEFFERSON CITY — The state Highway Patrol and federal immigration authorities plan to set up three joint task forces in Missouri to focus on illegal immigration.
A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that Missouri has been unique in its efforts to assist with federal immigration authorities. That's because the state has combined the three-pronged task force with a series of briefings held earlier this year to teach Missouri police officers about immigration law and how they can help enforce it.
"In these respects, Missouri has been unusual and unique in coordinating this training and getting this information out around the state,'' spokesman Carl Rusnok said Monday.
The Missouri State Highway Patrol plans to use 18 troopers who have received special federal training to staff task force offices in Kansas City, Springfield and St. Louis. The units will be called the Missouri Gateway Task Force and were formally created by an agreement signed by Gov. Matt Blunt last week.
Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. John Hotz said that the troopers will focus on crimes such as harboring illegal immigrants, transporting illegal immigrants and human trafficking. Those troopers assigned to the task forces are to spend one week every quarter working in the federal immigration offices.
In July, 10 state troopers completed special immigration training, which allows them to start enforcing federal immigration laws in Missouri. The Highway Patrol started checking the immigration status of those they arrest after an August 2007 directive from Blunt's office.
Hotz said the governor's order also prompted the patrol to pursue creating a special joint task force with federal immigration authorities.
In a written statement, Blunt said the task force would also help crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"People from all over the globe come to our great nation to share our freedoms, and Missourians embrace the contributions that lawful immigration makes to our society,'' Blunt said. "Missourians do not condone lawbreaking, and that is why my administration will continue to take important, proactive steps to protect our state from unlawful immigration.''
The Missouri troopers received special federal immigration training under a provision in a 1996 immigration law that allows U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to train and deputize state and local law enforcement. After the training, the police officers work under the supervision of federal immigration authorities.
Officers who are U.S. citizens, have been in their current position for at least two years and have no pending disciplinary actions are eligible to be trained.
But immigration advocates, and even some of the nation's police chiefs, have questioned the wisdom of using police officers to enforce federal immigration laws. They fear it could stretch local resources and make illegal immigrants less likely to report crimes and cooperate with police.
Illegal immigration has become an important political issue for Missouri politicians. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a broad bill designed to make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get welfare benefits and jobs. The measure also penalizes communities that adopt "sanctuary city'' policies and requires public employers and many state contractors to use a federal database to determine if new hires are allowed to work.