January 27, 2024 

An Untapped Resource – Addressing hiring challenges through legal residents and Dreamers  


PERF members, 

“Since the 2nd grade, I wanted to be a police officer.” I imagine many of you have a similar story or have heard it from one of your officers 

PERF heard this statement while speaking with an LAPD recruit this week who is in the academy. He told us his mother brought the family from Mexico when he was little. He represents the almost 2.3 million young people who qualify as DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) or “Dreamers,” who were brought to the country before turning 18 and are not currently eligible for citizenship. 

In a 6th grade school assignment, the LAPD recruit wrote that he wanted to be a police officer when he grew up. When a friend randomly texted him a photo of that assignment a couple of years ago, it “gave him the power he needed to follow his dream.” He spoke of his gratitude for how the LAPD has stressed that he and other DACA recruits “are the same as everyone else and will not be treated differently.” The Department has told these cadets —who must meet the same standards as everyone else in the academy — that their job is “to do the work,” and not get caught up in the politics of immigration reform. 

When asked what recruits like him can give back to the community and the department, he described the benefits of diversity and language access and stressed that he and his fellow recruits have a “hunger to do this and learn all they can.” They have faced unique challenges and have stayed committed. And their example is inspiring othersone of his siblings is now starting the process to become an officer. 

Chief Michel Moore of the LAPD explained, “We serve communities that are constantly evolving and changing. The police department needs to continue to reflect those we serve." 

Police departments across the country are struggling to maintain full staffing. A survey of PERF members found that sworn staffing levels decreased nearly 5 percent from January 2020 to January 2023. At the same time, the country is politically and structurally struggling to address record levels of immigration, and departments are working to improve their diversity. This young man, the others like him in academies in select states, and the thousands who could be eligible right now across the country all point to a new pool of potential applicants.  

Several PERF reports have highlighted the potential gains from tapping this pool. A 2020 report discussed the benefits of hiring bilingual officers who can serve as liaisons to specific communities. And a 2018 report explained why the Seattle Police Department launched an initiative to hire from their immigrant communities. “When the demographics of a police department’s employees align with the community demographics, communication gaps are bridged and there is a greater sense of cultural understanding between officers and residents,” we wrote. “Community members are also more likely to perceive the police department as fair, legitimate, and accountable. These factors contribute to a deepened trust in law enforcement, which strengthens relationships between police departments and the communities that they serve.”   

Many states still require officer candidates to be U.S. citizens, and even in the few states without this requirement, some cities and towns have citizenship or lawful permanent resident (LPR) requirements. The landscape is beginning to change, however. A growing number of states are allowing LPRs and even those who fall under the DACA immigration policy to become law enforcement officers.  

California and Colorado have passed laws to allow anyone authorized to work in the U.S., including DACA recipients, to be hired as law enforcement officers. New Jersey and other states are considering similar changes. Illinois passed a law allowing those legally authorized to work and carry a firearm to become officers, including anyone with valid DACA status. In Wisconsin, supporters have offered a similar proposal, but it has yet to pass.  

Some opponents have claimed that these laws will allow people who are in this country illegally to join departmentsbut that is not what is happening. The laws apply only to people who are legally allowed to work in the U.S. 

In our work with the PERF Immigration Group, we have heard from chiefs about other hurdles that would need to be cleared. In most states DACA recipients and some non-citizens cannot legally carry a firearm. In his capacity as PERF President, Seattle Chief Adrian Diaz recently asked ATF (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) whether DACA recipients may possess firearms while working as police officers. ATF Assistant Director Matthew Varisco responded, “It is ATF’s position that DACA recipients can possess duty firearms and ammunition as part of their official law enforcement officer duties.”  

LAPD Chief Michel Moore has modified department policy to allow DACA recipients to have their firearm while off duty. The LAPD now classifies their off-duty hours as part of the “performance of their official duties,” which will allow them to possess their firearm in accordance with federal law. This is consistent with the information Chief Diaz received from Assistant Director Varisco. According to ATF, if a law enforcement agency requires its officers to possess a firearm at all times, DACA recipients working as officers may possess firearms whether on or off duty. But if officers are not required to possess a duty firearm, DACA recipients working as officers may only possess one while on duty and must relinquish it at the end of each shift. 

Other departments are exploring making the commute to and from the precinct part of an officer’s “on-duty” responsibilities so an officer would not always have to be on duty to meet the standard to carry their duty weapon.  

Some jurisdictions are exploring ways to use different types of visas to hire and retain recruits. One idea is enabling young people with a background in policing in another country to qualify for a specialized visa, just as someone in a technology industry could.  

It is important to highlight that people who are not citizens but are legal permanent residents are allowed to serve in the U.S. military and many are serving now. They get advanced training, a weapon, and are sent to defend this country, but often they cannot serve as police officers. The armed services even offer those who serve an accelerated path to citizenship, something that needs to be considered for those who choose to serve in law enforcement  

This seems to me a win-win, but changes are needed at the local, state, and federal levels to enable more young people like the LAPD recruit to join law enforcement. These young people want to serve their communities. They want a job. They can help engage their communities through shared experiences and, often, their language. And they may one day be U.S. citizens. Do we have to wait until the current backlog in the immigration system is resolved to allow them to follow their dreams and help fill the ranks?