NEW IPSWICH, N.H. -- W. Garrett Chamberlain, chief of police in this bucolic town near the Massachusetts border, was tired of having to release the undocumented immigrants his officers had picked up on routine stops, so he decided to do something about it: He would cite them for trespassing.
A few weeks ago, one of Chamberlain's officers came upon Jorge Mora Ramirez, who was making a phone call from his car. Questioned by the officer, Ramirez, a 21-year-old who is Mexican, admitted he was in the country illegally, Chamberlain said. The chief called Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, but they declined to send someone over to pick up Ramirez. Chamberlain applied the only state statute he could think of.
''My position was: If Mr. Ramirez was in the country illegally, he was obviously in the town of New Ipswich illegally," Chamberlain said.
His initiative has made him a hero to critics of US immigration policy, who argue that ordinary citizens and police officers must step in to fill the gaps left by federal authorities unable or unwilling to enforce the laws consistently. But his actions have appalled immigrants' advocates, who say he is misusing the trespassing statute and is overstepping his authority.
If Ramirez is found guilty of trespassing, he will face no jail time, only a fine. And, according to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman, such a citation would not increase the chances that a person will be deported.
A spokesman, Manny Van Pelt, said that immigration officers would normally detain an undocumented noncitizen who had committed a crime or had been previously deported, but only after they had determined that he was in the country illegally. A local police chief in New Hampshire, he said, was not authorized to make that decision.
Still, Chamberlain has been celebrated by columnists and radio stations across the country and lauded by Representative Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who has led efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
The trespassing citations are taking place in the midst of a debate over US immigration policy. Critics have accused the federal government of having done little to slow illegal immigration and of having rounded up a mere fraction of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Private citizens, frustrated with what they see as government inaction, have banded together to patrol the border with Mexico themselves and have successfully lobbied Congress for more stringent immigration rules.
Police officers around the country have told Chamberlain that they plan to follow his example. Last week, Richard E. Gendron, the police chief in Hudson, N.H., cited two undocumented men for trespassing and said he intends to keep doing it.
''I thought that was pretty creative and innovative," Gendron said. He cited Sergio Robles Ruiz and Margarito Jaramillo Escobar, also Mexican nationals, for trespassing in his town on May 10, after they were stopped by police for having a broken headlight.
Gendron said that when he saw what Chamberlain had done, he ''made it a policy that from now on, anybody who encounters anybody in town who is an illegal alien, they will be cited" for trespassing.
Chamberlain insisted that his actions were not about ideology.
''I'm not an activist," he said in an interview. ''I believe in enforcing the laws across the board for everybody, the same way."
Chamberlain became concerned about immigration policy after he and another officer pulled over a van in July 2004 and found nine undocumented immigrants from Ecuador among the passengers. The men admitted they had paid a smuggler to take them across the US border. He called Immigration and Customs Enforcement to come pick them up, but said they told him they were not interested.
''The problem I have with that: We're 45 minutes north of Boston, it's two weeks before the Democratic National Convention, and the immigration police have no interest in detaining these people long enough to find out who they really are," Chamberlain said. ''It was kind of disheartening, in this post-Sept. 11 world, my guys are out there going the extra step to try to identify people who might be a potential threat to us, and they tell us we have to go ahead and release them."
Undocumented immigrants were a new problem for Chamberlain, whose department normally spends much of its time on traffic violations and vandalism in this town of 4,289. He took a picture of the Ecuadorans walking out of town, and sent it to reporters. He got sympathetic e-mail messages from people all over the country, he said.
''I sat here and I said: `There has to be some kind of law on a state level we can apply. What about criminal trespass?' " he said. ''And it was crystal clear."
New Hampshire law states: ''A person is guilty of criminal trespass if, knowing that he is not licensed or privileged to do so, he enters or remains in any place." The violation carries a fine of up to $1,000; there is no jail time.
Chamberlain asked the state attorney general's office for advice on the statute; officials said that his application of it would be novel, but that there was no other law that would prohibit its use.
Susan Cohen, an immigration lawyer who has researched trespassing laws in other states, said the way the New Hampshire statute is written allows an interpretation of trespassing so broad that anyone who is in the state and knows he has no right to be there could be seen as guilty.
''There is a possibility that this would stick," said Cohen of Mintz Levin, a Boston law firm.
Chamberlain's initiative will be tested on May 26, when Ruiz and Escobar are set to appear before a judge. Ramirez is due in court on July 12. Their cases have incensed immigrant advocates in New Hampshire and beyond, who are planning protests in both towns tomorrow.
''This is a completely absurd application of a statute that is clearly directed toward private property," said Claire Ebel, executive director of the New Hampshire office of the American Civil Liberties Union. ''I don't understand why there are now two police chiefs in New Hampshire who have taken this route.
''We are concerned this will become some kind of template for people who have no authority and no business attempting to enforce immigration law," Ebel said.
However, even if the men are found guilty of trespassing, they will not necessarily be more vulnerable to detention by immigration authorities, said Van Pelt, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman. Dealing with undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes or those who have been deported takes up all of the agency's resources, Van Pelt said.
There are more than 1 million people in immigration court proceedings. But between their own centers and the spaces in US correctional facilities reserved for them, immigration officials can hold only 19,444 aliens.
''We have to prioritize who we take into detention," Van Pelt said. ''The immigration system is not set up to detain or lock up every alien who is in the US illegally. If it were, there would have to be jails stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic."
Yvonne Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.