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Immigration Enforcement Partnership Program a Mess

A program that encourages federal/local cooperation in immigration enforcement is being poorly managed by ICE while local law enforcement breaks the rules.

by
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Bio

March 12, 2011 - 12:00 am

In the immigration enforcement racket, you always have to be careful whom you partner with.

Towns and cities in Central California learned that lesson the hard way in the 1970s when a series of joint operations between local police departments and the Border Patrol yielded what you might call uneven results. U.S. immigration officials scooped up a bounty of illegal immigrants that they could deport. The localities got stuck with civil rights lawsuits filed by Mexican-Americans who got caught in the net. The consensus was towns and cities had gotten the short end of the stick.

Before long, city councils throughout the state had passed resolutions prohibiting police departments from cooperating with Border Patrol. It was the birth of so-called sanctuary cities, which have been a political football ever since.

Now the situation is reversed. There is still a partnership, but it’s often the locals that want to rekindle a relationship with the federal government so they help rid their communities of illegal immigrants by harassing anyone who fits the profile. And now, poetically, it’s the federal government — specifically, the Department of  Homeland Security — that is in the back seat while local and state police do most of the driving.

The basis for this new relationship is something known as the 287 (g) program, which came about as a result of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The program allows local and state police to enforce federal immigration laws under certain conditions.

For instance, only designated officers are supposed to participate in the program, and only after they receive specialized training by sworn federal immigration agents. Once in the field, those officers are supposed to receive supervision by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to make sure they are properly using — and not abusing — their new power.

Speaking of abuse of power. Perhaps the most famous expellee from the 287 (g) program is none other than Joe Arpaio, America’s Most Ridiculous Sheriff. He was taken to the woodshed by John Morton, director of ICE, over allegations that the Maricopa Co. sheriff had resorted to racial profiling. Arpaio’s department maintained the power to check the immigration status of prisoners in the jail, but it lost the ability to make that determination in the street. Morton’s shootout with Arpaio seemed to set an early precedent that the federal government would be running the show.

That is no longer the case, according to a new report by the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute. It seems a lot of local and state law enforcement agencies are running wild, and making up their own rules about whom to stop, interrogate, and arrest.

For instance, local sheriffs and county officials have wide discretion to decide whether to detain only those immigrants wanted for specific offenses or check the status of every immigrant with which police come into contact.

This isn’t how the partnership was meant to work.

For instance, ICE is supposed to set the priorities and direction. That agency has already decided that its enforcement priority in all of its operations is arresting and deporting illegal immigrants who had — in addition to the civil infraction of unlawfully entering the United States — also committed serious crimes such as robbery, rape, and assault. It’s a question of where you choose to allot scarce resources.

Either the local and state law enforcement agencies didn’t get the memo, or they got it and disregarded it. According to the report, about half of the immigrants who were detained for deportation under the 287 (g) program had committed only minor crimes or traffic violations. That much was predictable. The people who run local and state law enforcement agencies don’t care about the big picture of helping ICE get rid of so-called criminal aliens. They’re just as likely to want to get rid of all illegal immigrants as part of a quixotic mission to magically return their communities and neighborhoods to what they looked like 50 years ago.

And even though ICE is supposed to ensure that the 287 (g) program is implemented uniformly around the country, the report found that what individual law enforcement agencies did and how they did it varied widely from place to place. They’re making up their own rules — and, it seems, making them up as they go.

This story will continue. We’re just getting started. Expect more racial profiling. More trips to the woodshed. More lawsuits. The 287 (g) program is a complete mess, brought to us courtesy of a dysfunctional partnership that was cursed from the start.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer, and a regular contributor to CNN.com.
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