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Harsh Policing of Immigrants Is Bad for Everyone

A new study finds that deportation profiling can lead to a decline in local economic activity, among other problems.

Detainees whose immigration status has been questioned wait at an ICE facility. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The recent wave of deportation raids has spread panic among immigrant communities all over the U.S., but their fear isn’t a new. Undocumented immigrants and their families have long lived in the shadows, terrified of local police power to enforce immigration law.

But it’s not just immigrants who suffer under harsh enforcement of migration laws. According to research published in the February 2016 issue of Urban Studies, such practices negatively impacts both them and the wider community they live in.  

The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has delegated enforcement responsibility to local police through various programs over the years. Its 287(g) program, for example, was revised in 2009 to prioritize the deportation of unauthorized immigrants convicted of crimes. Agreements with local and state law enforcement via 287(g) have now mostly been replaced by ICE’s “Secure Communities” program, through which local law enforcement can use federal biometric data to screen immigrant status. In 2015, Secure Communities was also updated to the Priority Enforcement Program.

When it comes to how these various programs are implemented (if at all), place matters. In 350 police jurisdictions in the U.S., as in many “Sanctuary Cities,” law enforcement’s involvement in immigration enforcement is limited. For example, in many of these places, local police can only check immigration status once the person is already in jail after being charged with a crime.

In other regions of the U.S., immigration status can be questioned at routine checkpoints and for minor infractions, such as loitering. Arizona, North Carolina, and Alabama, for example, have had controversial local laws that encourage this harsher approach to immigration enforcement by police. Civil rights organizations and academics have long criticized these laws for supporting racial profiling of immigrants solely for the purpose of deportation.

Enforcement in North Carolina

In their new paper, Mai Thi Nguyen and Hannah Gill at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined the 287(g) program in Durham City and Alamance County in North Carolina—two jurisdictions with a harsher and softer approach toward immigration enforcement, respectively. Here’s how they sum up their conclusions, via the paper (our emphasis):

In our study, the ambiguity about the role of law enforcement after the adoption of 287g and fear of deportation have affected immigrants in a number of ways, including civic engagement, access to services and perceived vulnerability to crime. Furthermore, immigrant businesses have experienced a disruption in economic activity and immigrants report greater exploitation by employers and landlords. These are social and economic concerns relevant to the entire community, not just immigrants.

The researchers conducted 60 interviews with immigrants, activists, local government officials, law enforcement officers between 2006 and 2010 in both jurisdictions. They also obtained arrest data from the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office and the Durham Police Department through the Freedom of Information Act. The data showed the types of crimes that unauthorized immigrants rounded up through the 287(g) program were charged with in both places.

The two jurisdictions vary greatly in size and attitude towards immigrants. Durham’s population was 50 percent larger than Alamance’s in 2010. Hispanic immigrants made up 14 percent of the Durham population and 11 percent of Alamance that year. In Alamance, which has a history of anti-immigrant sentiment, officers were not technically supposed to check immigration status in the field but did so anyway; in Durham City, officers could check immigration status in field but did so judiciously, the report suggests.

The arrest data from Alamance County between 2007 and 2011 revealed that 2,109 unauthorized immigrants were interviewed under the 287(g) program. Out of these cases, deportation proceedings were launched against 1,622—or 77 percent of those interviewed. Almost 40 percent of the initial arrest charges were for traffic-related offenses, like driving with broken taillights or making illegal turns, “which are considered infractions and not crimes per se,” the authors note.

Meanwhile in Durham, from 2008 to April 2011, 430 immigrants were brought in for questioning, and only 106 of them were processed for deportation —25 percent of the total interviewed during this period. All 106 had serious criminal charges against them.

The results show that two enforcement approaches to the same program can yield drastically different results, based on the politics and perception of immigration in that area. What’s more, in Alamance, the authors found evidence that local police actually changed their behavior after they started to participate in the 287(g) program. Here are the authors (with some British spelling):

Soon after the program began, interviewees reported that traffic checkpoints routinely appeared in front of a field where Mexican and Salvadorian migrants play soccer on a weekly basis. Three church pastors with Spanish-speaking congregations reported the presence of traffic checkpoints near their churches on Sunday mornings, which resulted in a decrease in attendance. Some interviewees also reported that law enforcers checked drivers and  passengers for licences to determine immigration status.

A 2012 Department of Justice investigation also found evidence of racial profiling against Latinos by the Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson (although a discrimination lawsuit against him was later dismissed). And here’s what one Alamance County commissioner admitted to Nguyen and Gill in June 2008, via the report:

“287g deters local crime by illegal aliens. But that’s not the only thing I am after. I want illegal aliens, to be honest with you, out of here. I don’t blink an eye.”

A “chill effect” on the wider community

As news of instances of profiling and abuse of power spread through word of mouth, immigrants—regardless of legal status—started isolating themselves in Alamance, interviews revealed. The authors call this decrease of public, social, and economic activity by immigrants the “chill effect.” As a result, not only did Hispanic businesses lose revenue, but so did others in the area. Here are the authors, again via the report:

Nearly all business owners attributed losses to less shopping activity by Hispanics, and more than 50% cited law enforcement’s increased focus on Hispanics as contributing to decreases in consumer activity. An employee at a local Wal-Mart in an Hispanic neighbourhood attributed lower sales volume during May–July of 2007 as a result of the 287g Program.

The lack of trust in local law enforcement also meant that immigrants in Alamance who experienced crime were reluctant to report it out of fear and mistrust of police. The harsh enforcement was, in a sense, preventing the police from carrying out their primary duty of protecting the wider community from criminal activity, Nguyen tells CityLab.

Yet, proponents of harsher policing continue to sing its praises. Here’s Governor Chris Christie in the first Republican presidential debate of 2016, via CBS News:

“I worked hard with not only federal agents but with police officers and here's the problem, sanctuary cities is part of the problem in this country. That's where crime is happening in these cities where they don't enforce the immigration laws.”

In actuality, crimes are being committed in all cities, but to a lesser degree by immigrants than native-born Americans. Deportation of low-priority immigrants and the resulting erosion of police-community trust, however, seems to be occurring more regularly in jurisdictions where police act like a deportation task-force.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.