A program that deputizes local police officers to enforce immigration laws sent the Hispanic population plummeting in many places across the United States, including Prince William and Frederick counties, according to a report released Monday by the Migration Policy Institute.
The study focused on seven places–including Prince William and Frederick–that have adopted the federal 287 (g) program, which is in use by 70 state and local law enforcement agencies in 25 states.
Under the program, which costs $68 million annually, local police officers are trained to determine the immigration status of people they arrest and flag those found to be in the country illegally to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Once illegal immigrants are transferred to ICE custody, the U.S. government decides whether to begin deportation proceedings.
Although ICE has said it prioritizes deportation of people with serious criminal backgrounds, some of the jurisdictions participating in the program seek to remove as many undocumented immigrants as possible, regardless of their criminal background, the study found.
In Frederick and Prince William counties, fewer than 10 percent of those detained were arrested for the most serious, Level 1 crimes, which include murder, rape and armed robbery. In Las Vegas, by contrast, more than 50 percent of illegal immigrants detained were arrested for the most serious crimes.
“The wide variation reflected in our study suggests that state and local actors, rather than ICE, are significantly defining the program’s enforcement priorities,” says the report, which based its findings on ICE data and interviews conducted in the seven localities.
Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins denied that the county is trying to deport as many illegal immigrants as possible but said undocumented traffic violators are potential threats.
“How do you say that a [serious] Level 1 offender is more dangerous than an immigrant who’s out driving a car illegally who could potentially hit someone and kill them?” Jenkins said, noting that those arrested are “in the country illegally to start with, and beyond that, they’ve committed a crime. How many free passes do you give someone?”
The report says that targeting serious criminals makes more sense as an enforcement strategy, particularly when government resources are limited.
Pursuing unauthorized immigrants who haven’t committed serious crimes “takes away resources to go after what everybody believes are the high-priority criminals,” said Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst at MPI and one of the report’s authors. “You can’t have them be a top priority and then have the waitress or the gardener who’s never broken a law except to be here illegally, you can’t have them both be the top priority. When these state and local enforcement agencies fill up the detention centers and jails with low-priority cases . . . it compromises ICE’s ability to do high-priority enforcement.”
It also sows fear and distrust between local immigrant communities and the police, the report says.
Immigration advocates have long decried the 287 (g) program, saying that it leads to racial profiling and destroys relationships between police and immigrant communities.
Because of the controversy surrounding it, the program’s growth has stalled. Another enforcement program, Secure Communities, has largely replaced it at the local level, although Secure Communities has been attacked for some of the same reasons.
ICE has said it plans to expand the program to every state by 2013.