Fed Program Turns Local Cops into Enforcers of Immigration Policy

The hidden costs and other downsides of the program are not understood or are ignored by elected officials seeking to reap political dividends.

NEW YORK -- In 2007, the mayor of Morristown, New Jersey tried to enroll local police officers in a federal program that delegates immigration enforcement duties to local and state police.

Dozens of law enforcement agencies nationwide already had joined the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program. Called 287(g) for a section of the 1996 immigration law that created it, the program is touted as a partnership between federal and local law enforcement to crack down on dangerous transnational crimes, like drug trafficking and human smuggling.

Mayor Donald Cresitello hoped 287(g) would help educate his police force about immigration and enhance cooperation with federal authorities. But, his initiative quickly ran into stiff resistance over financing and civil rights, reflecting the growing controversy over 287(g). More than 60 jurisdictions in some 20 states participate.

The program’s most notorious proponent is Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., which has the largest 287(g) program in the country. On Feb. 4, Arpaio was widely condemned by rights groups and the Mexican government after he led chained immigration detainees on a public march to "Tent City," an incarceration compound he created. Last month, several congressmen demanded a federal investigation into Arpaio's activities as possible racial profiling of Latinos.

Morris County is not Maricopa County, but its Latino population is significant at 11 percent in a suburb that is mostly white. Cresitello, who was elected in 2005, made illegal immigration one of his signature issues. He denies he is an immigration hardliner, but says he favors strong borders and federal legislation to provide, not a blanket amnesty, but a path to citizenship for the country's 12 million undocumented immigrants-- if they are willing to go through the proper channels.

Morristown doesn’t have a jail in which to house detainees before ICE takes custody of them, so Cresitello asked Morris County authorities for space at their correctional facility. County Sheriff Edward V. Rochford wrote an 18-page memo that said the 287(g) program would likely cost the county $1.3 million in infrastructure, staffing extra guards and ancillary costs, not to mention exposure to lawsuits.

"It is important to note that ... ICE would not reimburse the county for any start up costs such as those mentioned," said the Oct. 19, 2007 memo, obtained by the New York-based nonprofit Justice Strategies and published on its Web site.

Once the program was up and running, federal reimbursements would cover about half the average daily cost of housing 287(g) detainees in the county facility, Rochford wrote. Also, ICE had failed to answer a raft of questions on the specifics of 287(g). "When push came to shove, and we asked questions, they just wouldn't respond to us," Rochford told New America Media. He also questioned the need for 287(g) since Morris County already routinely checks arrestees' immigration status and reports the results to ICE.

Immigrant rights activists in Morristown also had their concerns. They worried the program would lead to random sweeps, racial profiling and a climate of fear. In a phone interview, Cresitello disputed the program's critics. He said police don't always ask the immigration status of arrestees and disagreed that 287(g) would have been as expensive as Rochford claims.

Cresitello added that 287(g) is only intended to help detain foreign-born criminals and curtail organized crime and is not designed to justify street roundups. "I think people were missing the point of the program," he said. However, he acknowledged that illegal immigrants might be detained under 287(g) if they are stopped for a traffic violation.

Department of Homeland Security spokesman Mike Keegan said he was not familiar with the Morris County application but confirmed that ICE did not cover increased staffing costs associated with 287(g) detainees. It does pay for training, he said, some tech-related costs, and about $100 per day for inmate detention.

In the end, Morristown signed the 287(g) agreement late last year and planned to house detainees in facilities outside the county. However, according to Cresitello, ICE has held up the agreement's implementation as it considers making changes to it.

New Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has ordered a broad review of immigration enforcement policies, including 287(g). A report released last week by Justice Strategies offers arguments for eliminating the program. One is that it imposes a fiscal burden on recession-battered local and state taxpayers by making their law enforcement agencies do federal immigration enforcement work.

Also, as police and sheriff departments move to identify and arrest undocumented immigrants, which 287(g) empowers them to do, the trust between local law enforcement and immigrant communities suffers. "A big red flag went up for us when 287(g) sprung to life," said Judith Greene, a report co-author. The program had been dormant until it was revived under Pres. George W. Bush. Homeland Security spokesman Keegan said he could not comment on the report’s findings but that the department took allegations of civil rights violations "very seriously."

Though the program has been running since 2003, ICE documents show that 55 of the more than 60 active partnership agreements were signed in 2008 or 2007. That's when Morristown, N.J., submitted its bid, although 287(g) has been embraced mostly in the West and South. In the Northeast, only Hudson City, N.H., has an agreement, according to ICE's latest tally.

In many jurisdictions, the hidden costs and other downsides to 287(g) are not understood or are ignored by elected officials seeking to reap political dividends from appearing tough on immigration, said Aarti Shahani, the report's other author.

Shahani noted that just over 60 percent of 287(g) agreements have been signed by elected officials who, in several notorious cases, have gained political capital crusading against illegal immigration. Besides its other problems, the program mixes immigration law, which like tax law is civil, with criminal law, Shahani said, which is like the "IRS one day deputizing traffic police to check 1040s."

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