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287(g) basics: How the federal-local immigration partnership works

A Los Angeles County prisoner bus, June 2009
A Los Angeles County prisoner bus, June 2009
Photo by 888bailbonds/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Last night, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to extend the county’s participation in a partnership between Sheriff’s Department officials and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement known as 287(g), which allows deputies to screen people who land in county jail for immigration status.

Just what is 287(g)? The federal program derives its odd name from a 1996 amendment to the immigration law that authorized it. From the ICE website:

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 added Section 287(g), performance of immigration officer functions by state officers and employees, to the Immigration and Nationality Act. This authorizes the secretary of DHS to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, permitting designated officers to perform immigration law enforcement functions, provided that the local law enforcement officers receive appropriate training and function under the supervision of ICE officers.

Here’s how it works: Agencies that choose to participate in 287(g) receive federally-funded training from ICE, with officers participating in a four-week training program. ICE in turn authorizes the agencies to identify and detain deportable immigrants encountered by officers in "the course of daily duties," according to an ICE fact sheet. Each agency enters into a contract with ICE, known as a memorandum of agreement, that defines the scope and limitations of the particular partnership.

Agencies that participate in 287(g) – 72 altogether to date, in 26 states - can request training specific to any area of immigration law enforcement, such as checking immigration status during traffic stops. But as in Los Angeles County, the program is used by most agencies to identify and deport undocumented immigrants, as well as deportable legal residents, who land in local jails and state prisons.

Homeland Security secretary Janet Napolitano recently gave credit to 287(g), along with a similarly controversial fingerprint-sharing program known as Secure Communities, with the record number of deportations that have been carried out under the Obama administration.

Both programs have been heavily criticized by immigrant advocates as being conducive to racial profiling. An audit conducted last year by Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General found various flaws with the program, including instances in which ICE and participating law enforcement agencies were not operating in compliance with the terms of their agreements.

Since the audit was conducted, ICE has announced reforms, among them a new requirement that officers participating in 287(g) maintain records to ensure that the focus is on what ICE terms “criminal aliens,” i.e. immigrants who have been convicted of a crime. (This extends to legal residents, who are rendered deportable by criminal offenses, including some state misdemeanors.)

Since January 2006, more than 173,000 “potentially removable” immigrants, as described by ICE, have been pinpointed by agencies participating in 287(g). The agency has trained and certified more than 1,190 state and local officers.

This includes sheriff’s deputies in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, all of which participate in jail immigration enforcement as part of 287(g).

While similar in terms of the federal-local cooperation, 287(g) is a different program than Secure Communities, an ICE information-sharing program in which the names and fingerprints of people booked into county jails are run through FBI and immigration databases (and which various jurisdictions have lately tried to opt out of, without success).