When Alabama state trooper Darryl Zuchelli stopped a van going 18 mph over the speed limit on a routine patrol two months ago, he quickly became part of the federal government's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration.
Two of the five people in the van were from India and had overstayed their allotted time in the United States. The trooper worked with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Birmingham, Ala., more than 700 miles from the nearest international border, to start deportation proceedings against the two that night.
Zuchelli is one of 56 Alabama troopers to receive special training and high-tech tools from the U.S. government to determine whether criminal suspects are in the country legally. Alabama was only the second state to partner with ICE when it signed up in 2003, following Florida.
Now the partnership known as the 287 (g) program is skyrocketing in popularity - 34 state and local law enforcement agencies in 15 states are on board and another 77 have applied. The program offers one of the few ways states and localities can help crack down on illegal immigration, a federal duty.
But deputizing local officers to help enforce federal immigration laws draws critics who question whether it could hamper police officers' ability to do their core duties, because it could scare off immigrants from reporting crime and could lead to racial profiling. Those concerns are a big reason the program has been a politically loaded issue in some areas.
In Alabama, the specially trained officers work both on the road and in driver's license facilities. Combating license fraud was one of the main reasons Alabama authorities were interested in the program, said Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Martha Earnhardt.
The licensing division runs a criminal background check on every applicant, and the ICE training helps the office screen for even more offenders, she said. The agency arrests 4,000 people a year who apply for licenses, for offenses ranging from fraud to child abuse to murder.
Zuchelli, a 32-year-old who led Alabama state troopers with the most drunken driving arrests last year (129), said the immigration training makes him a better police officer with the added incentive that "I may be able to take out a terrorist before he does something else to us."
But activists for immigrants are wary.
"I don't see how states and localities can enforce immigration law without engaging in racial profiling. The people they ask to prove their immigration status or citizenship are the people who look or sound foreign," said Joan Friedland, immigration policy director for the National Immigration Law Center, a group that supports immigrant rights.
Alabama state police say they've worked with immigrant communities and civil rights groups to try to allay fears about the program, particularly about racial profiling.
Still, after meeting with the state police, representatives from the Alabama chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union had just as many concerns as they did before the meeting, said Sam Brooke, a law fellow with the group.
Kevin Butler, a lawyer who represents poor defendants against the federal government, alleged in court papers that one state trooper was targeting out-of-state Hispanic drivers for traffic stops and searches and asked state police for detailed information on the stops made by him. Butler's preliminary review concluded that 58 percent of the vehicle searches the officer conducted were of Hispanic motorists, even though Hispanics make up 2 percent of Alabama's population.
A judge ordered the state police to turn over the information, but the case settled before they complied.
Other activists worry that the 287 (g) program will discourage immigrants from talking to all police officers, even though in Alabama, for example, the state police are the only ones that, in effect, can work as immigration authorities.
"I'm not sure there's a real clear understanding about the difference between the uniform of the state trooper, the sheriff's deputy and the local beat cop," said Isabel Rubio, executive director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama in Birmingham.
Some law enforcement groups echo that concern.
"Immigration enforcement by local police would likely negatively effect and undermine the level of trust and cooperation between local police and immigrant communities," concluded the Major Cities Chiefs, a group of more than 50 big city police chiefs, in a report issued last year.
But ICE spokesman Mike Gilhoody said the program is specifically designed to decrease crime - not scare immigrants. Local police don't participate in workplace raids, and they don't pursue immigration questions unless they have evidence a crime has been committed.
"The goal is criminal activity. The goal has never been and never will be (apprehending) victims," he said.
Across the country, more than 30,000 people have been charged with immigration-related offenses by local and state authorities over the last three years. Nearly 600 officers are now trained to handle immigration cases.
Officers undergo a five-week training course that includes instruction on civil rights and immigration laws, federal prohibitions on racial profiling, cross-cultural issues and treaty obligations that require officers to notify foreign consulates about certain arrests.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the Massachusetts Department of Corrections are using their immigration authority to screen inmates, while four police departments in northwest Arkansas have set up an illegal immigration task force that's nabbed 79 suspected immigration offenders in its first month.
But the program can be a dicey political issue, as it has been in Virginia.
There, Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, has rebuffed a proposal by Attorney General Bob McDonnell, a Republican, to let the state police, corrections officers and drivers' facility staff participate in the program.
"It's not the state's position to step in when the federal government abdicates its responsibility," because state workers should focus on their own jobs, Kaine spokesman Gordon Hickey said.
After a Peruvian immigrant was arrested in connection with the shooting of three college students in Newark, N.J., Attorney General Anne Milgram stepped up pressure on criminals in the country illegally by establishing uniform rules on when police should call immigration authorities. But Milgram stopped short of enrolling local officers in the 287(g) program.
Also responding to the Newark slayings, Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R) directed state law enforcement agencies to prepare to join the program and encouraged local departments to do the same.
Shortly before his unsuccessful November re-election bid, Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) said the state prison system would ask to join the 287(g) program. Lawmakers in Oklahoma also gave its state police the green light to participate in the program this spring.