Fewer Local Officers Become Immigration Agents

Alan Gomez, USA Today, September 14, 2010

A federal program that deputizes local police officers to act as immigration agents has seen a sharp drop in interest from law enforcement agencies.

Seventy-two agencies have signed up for the program since it began in 2002, training more than 1,100 local law enforcement officers in 26 states to perform immigration checks and begin deportations. Nine agencies signed on last year and one so far in 2010.

Jim Denney, a former Sutter County, Calif., sheriff who is executive director of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, says local departments have been turned off by the controversy that comes with the program, known as 287(g). Only four agencies in California participate.

Denney says the program makes Hispanics suspicious of police and less willing to cooperate to solve crimes.

“There has to be a level of trust that both sides enjoy in order to work together,” he says. “There are going to be times when we have to rely on illegal immigrants to conduct an investigation, and they are going to be concerned if the first thing they think is we’re going to round them up.”

The program has supporters, including Lexington County, S.C., Sheriff James Metts, whose department joined this year.

Metts says his area’s agriculture industry has drawn a large influx of Hispanics and that he has seen “several murders, gang activity, drug activity, coming in with the Hispanic population.”

His office did not provide statistics but cited cases in which illegal immigrants were suspects in violent crimes and a 2008 study that found 8.5% of the people in his jail were in the country illegally.

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Richard Rocha, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says part of the reason for the decline in interest in the program is the economy.

“Law enforcement agencies across the country are faced with limited resources, and in some instances the 287(g) program may not be a viable option,” he says.

A less labor-intensive ICE program, Secure Communities, is more popular with police agencies. It is in use in 574 jurisdictions in 30 states. Under that program, everyone booked into a jail has fingerprints sent to the Department of Homeland Security to determine immigration status. Follow-through on illegal immigrants is done by ICE, not the local police.

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