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Blog Post: Law Enforcement’s Role in Welcoming Afghan Refugees

Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force   Blog

By ret. Chief Ramon Batista (LEITF Senior Advisor)

With the departure of American forces from Afghanistan and the ensuing arrival of evacuees from that country to ours, I can’t help but think about the role that American policing will play in their lives. I look to the future and think about the impact these new arrivals will have on our country. I believe our Afghan allies – who worked alongside U.S. forces and bravely risked their lives – will help forge an even stronger nation.

Police officers may come across these new immigrants in the weeks and months ahead, as some of our new Afghan neighbors may struggle to adjust to their new communities given residual trauma. This is not new to us in emergency services. I think about the impact these encounters could have on someone experiencing all that is new about America. Men and women in public safety are subject to the same perceptions and feelings when dealing with the unknown: we are cautious and yet must move forward, building trust in order to succeed with our mission of public safety.

Today’s Afghan refugees are not vastly different from others who have fled from persecution and oppression throughout history.  In those moments, our nation has opened its doors. As was the case during previous times, it will be our social service agencies and faith-based organizations that step into the breach, providing much needed assistance and guidance to our new residents. Although we may not often realize, police officers also play a critical role in bringing new immigrants into the fold of American life. These interactions happen every day and without fanfare, through casual, daily encounters; one unrelated call for help often leads to other areas where police officers fill the void.

I recall one such touching story from my career at the Tucson Police Department. At the time, I was the bureau chief of patrol, overseeing all uniformed personnel across 230 square miles that make up the city of Tucson. One day, a patrol lieutenant told me about a group of officers that had repeat calls to an apartment complex housing new Somali immigrants. The officers of this patrol division had experience dealing with the immigrant community, as Tucson is a city rich in culture and diversity. When they responded to calls at the complex, they noted that the local kids wanted to mingle with them. Some were shy, but most of the kids seemed to look at the officers with a sincere combination of respect, curiosity and a not-so-subtle desire to play and interact. One of the kids approached an officer with a book in her hand and asked him to read it. I recall the officers thought that they needed to do their part in helping the kids assimilate and learn English. The officers understood that learning the language was fundamental to the children’s success. Eventually, several officers approached their supervisors with an idea to collect books and start a reading program at the complex. It was never about winning hearts and minds; the kids already looked up to the officers with admiration in their eyes.

On their own initiative, the officers found colleagues who were interested in participating. They gathered book donations and worked with the staff at the apartment complex to gather the kids and start the reading program. To this day, I remember the images of their initial event – young Somali children sitting on blankets in the grass with police officers, holding books and reading passages. I look back on that moment with incredible pride and a warmed heart to see the accomplishment of our officers and the impact they were making on young lives. As the saying goes, it takes a village. To this day, Tucson remains a welcoming community, one that embraces the richness of diversity. The officers of this great city reflect their community, and they are standard bearers of excellence in service to our country.

There will be challenges ahead of us as we welcome Afghan refugees, but I urge everyone to remember our nation’s rich history of welcoming, and caring for, immigrants. It may seem far-fetched in today’s body-politic, but it’s not. Community leaders at all levels – including law enforcement – are playing a role in building our great country, and ensuring we are successful in the years to come. Together we are stronger.

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