How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Report: 287(g) immigration enforcement program isn't focused on serious offenders

A Los Angeles County prisoner bus, June 2009. The county extended its participation in the federal 287(g) program in October.
A Los Angeles County prisoner bus, June 2009. The county extended its participation in the federal 287(g) program in October. Photo by 888bailbonds/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The federal government's controversial 287(g) program, which partners local agencies with immigration authorities, is the subject of a new report out today from the Migration Policy Institute.

Among other things, the report echoes some of the already existing complaints about federal-local immigration enforcement in that there is not as much of an emphasis on finding and deporting immigrants with serious criminal records as promised by the Obama administration.

According to the analysis from the institute, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C. think tank whose senior staff includes former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service chief Doris Meissner, the 287(g) program as it's being implemented "is not targeted primarily at serious offenders," with only about half of 287(g) activity involving non-citizens (mostly undocumented immigrants, but also legal residents) arrested for misdemeanor or traffic offenses.

A few of the findings highlighted in the report:

  • At the national level, the program is not targeted primarily or even mostly toward serious offenders. Nationally, about half of program activity (defined by the number of immigration detainers issued) involves people who have committed felonies and other crimes that ICE deems to be serious (Priority Level 1 and 2 in ICE’s terminology). The other half of detainers issued are on people who have committed misdemeanors (usually considered Level 3) and traffic offenses.

  • Some jurisdictions operate “targeted” models, aimed primarily at identifying serious criminal offenders, while others pursue “universal” models, designed to identify as many unauthorized immigrants as possible. In FY 2010, Las Vegas operated the most targeted program among our sites: officers placed 70 percent of detainers on Level 1 or 2 offenders. By contrast, Cobb County (GA) and Frederick County (MD) placed about 80 percent of their detainers on Level 3 or traffic offenders, and officers there placed detainers universally (i.e., on every unauthorized immigrant booked into jail or encountered during policing operations).

  • The 287(g) jail model does not impose federal oversight on officers who make the initial arrests. Under the jail model, 287(g) officers screen for immigration status and place detainers after people have been booked into jail. Initial arrests are generally made by police officers working for agencies without 287(g) agreements and who lack federal oversight and training in immigration laws. The lack of federal control over arresting officers opens the door to racial profiling and pretextual arrests, especially in jurisdictions that place immigration detainers universally.

Another interesting finding was that most of the "universal" models of implementing 287(g), those designed to net the most deportable individuals, are concentrated in the Southeast. The report was based on interviews with federal, state and local law enforcement, elected officials, advocacy groups and others in seven jurisdictions where the program is used, including Los Angeles County.

287(g), which precedes the Obama administration but remains widely used, derives its name from a 1996 amendment to the immigration law that authorized it. The voluntary program authorizes U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement. Agencies that choose to participate receive training from ICE, which in turn authorizes them to identify and detain deportable immigrants encountered in “the course of daily duties,” according to an ICE fact sheet. Each agency enters into a contract with ICE that defines the scope of the partnership.

Participating agencies can request training specific to any area of enforcement. But as in Los Angeles County, the program is used mostly to identify deportable immigrants who land in local jails and state prisons. According to the report, "jail model" programs accounted for 90 percent of the immigration detainers issued via 287(g) between late 2009 and mid-2010.

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