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What 287(g) is, and why the feds prefer Secure Communities

Art by José Luís Agapito/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A Homeland Security budget proposal released yesterday recommends what seems to be a gradual phase-out of a program known as 287(g), a voluntary federal-local immigration enforcement partnership that preceded the more controversial, but less costly (and mandatory) Secure Communities fingerprint-sharing program. The proposed budget recommends cutting $17 million from 287(g), discontinuing it in some jurisdictions, and suspending consideration of new requests from agencies wishing to participate.

What is 287(g)? The federal program derives its odd name from a 1996 amendment to the immigration law that authorized it. From the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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.

How it works: Agencies that participate in 287(g) have received 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, defining the scope of each particular partnership.

Agencies are able to request training specific to any area of immigration law enforcement, but as used in Los Angeles County (along with Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties), most agencies use it to identify deportable immigrants who land in local jails and state prisons. In jails, the screening is generally done post-conviction, versus on the receiving end, as occurs with Secure Communities.

That's just one of the key differences between the two programs. Another, one that plays into the cost-effectiveness issue, is that unlike 287(g), which involves paid and trained personnel, Secure Communities functions via a database, with fingerprints that are taken at booking facilities automatically shared and compared against a national criminal and immigration database.

Given this, the recommendation for 287(g) in the Homeland Security budget brief for fiscal year 2013 isn't surprising. From the federal brief, released yesterday:

287(g) Program: In light of the nationwide activation of the Secure Communities program, the Budget reduces the 287(g) program by $17 million. The Secure Communities screening process is more consistent, efficient and cost effective in identifying and removing criminal and other priority aliens. To implement this reduction in 2013, ICE will begin by discontinuing the least productive 287(g) task force agreements in those jurisdictions where Secure Communities is already in place and will also suspend consideration of any requests for new 287(g) task forces.

In the years before Secure Communities was launched in 2008, the Bush administration pushed additional funding to expand 287(g). But another problem with the voluntary program is that it hasn't drawn nearly as many takers as hoped, with some law enforcement officials reluctant to commit staff to duties that take them away from more immediate police work.

For example, here's what former San Diego County Sheriff Bill Kolender stated in 2006 as the Bush administration tried to expand the program: “We are currently 200 positions short for our basic law enforcement needs throughout the county...and are unable to dedicate additional resources to help federal officers apprehend and detain illegal immigrants.”

According to ICE, only 68 law enforcement agencies in 24 states have 287(g) agreements with the federal government, a minimal participation rate compared with Secure Communities, which the Obama administration wants rolled out in all jurisdictions nationwide by next year.

Various state and local government officials around the country have long attempted to opt out of Secure Communities as well, especially since the memorandums of understanding for that program suggested opting out might be possible. But last summer, ICE director John Morton sent letters to state governors terminating the state contracts, essentially forcing compliance.

It's too soon to know which if any local jurisdictions might be targeted for a 287(g) phase-out, though it's unlikely L.A. County would be among them; more details from ICE are forthcoming.