Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new report by a government watchdog finds that a controversial program that allows local police to participate in immigration enforcement is spreading—but without proper training and oversight.
In January of 2017, there were 36 so-called “anti-sanctuary” cities in the United States—these are local jurisdictions that agree to have their local law enforcement act like immigration officers in jails and in the field. Today there are 78.
But this rapid expansion over the last year and a half has been accompanied by a lack of training and oversight, according to a new report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And that could open the door for abuses, due process violations, and, potentially, racial profiling of Latinos.
The rise of these reverse-sanctuaries began in January 2017, when President Donald Trump signed an executive order asking DHS to actively expand a program known as 287(g), which allows local law enforcement to investigate, detain, and start deportation proceedings on undocumented immigrants. And sure enough, many sheriffs—especially those in conservative counties who had to gain politically from a tough-on-crime approach—started signing up.
Maybe too many: In its investigation, OIG found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “was not able to hire enough [staff] to keep up with the quick expansion.” The program lacks sufficient number of program managers, whose jobs include overseeing officer training and compliance, monitoring interactions between deputized officers and suspected undocumented people, and making sure that the legal basis for removal is sufficient.
As a result, the report states, local officers are not being trained properly “to be competent and capable of carrying out their delegated immigration duties.”
To critics of the program, the findings are hardly surprising. “This was destined to happen … that the requirements for training and oversight were going to be lowered, if not formally by the Trump administration, then informally,” said Daniel Stageman, a professor at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice who studies local immigration enforcement. “I suspect it’s a lack of interest rather than a lack of will.”
In early iterations of 287(g), called the “task force” model, local police officers were authorized to check papers in the field. But Justice Department investigations found this approach to be rife with civil rights concerns. The most egregious case was the implementation of this program under Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. His police force became notorious for the inhumane and humiliating conditions it imposed on immigrant detainees in their custody. When their jails became overcrowded, for example, Arpaio housed immigrant detainees in “concentration camps”—tent cities where temperatures rose to 135 degrees. Arpaio’s implementation of 287(g) was also extraordinarily costly: The Arizona Republic dubbed him “the most expensive sheriff in America.” Taxpayers bore the brunt not just of overtime and benefits for his staff but for his legal fees after he was hit by lawsuits.
In the version of the program that the 78 counties currently have, only jail officers take on ICE’s responsibility. This is an easier sell to local governments, because law enforcement is ostensibly investigating individuals who’re already being booked for crimes. But critics point out that by potentially sidestepping the criminal justice process, the jail-only approach to 287(g) leaves the door open to discrimination and abuses—especially if officers aren’t properly trained. What if officers target witnesses of crime who have come forward to help law enforcement, for example?
Indeed, an analysis of the arrests made by the Sheriff’s office in Frederick County, Maryland, suggests that the program “led to a biased increase in the arrests of Hispanics, regardless of immigrant status.” What’s more: The incentives for racial profiling may become even more robust if the federal government couples 287(g) agreements with contracts through which it pays local governments money to jail immigrants. The Daily Beast explored the case of Tulsa County, Oklahoma, where sheriff’s officers can make immigration arrests of people who may have been brought to jail for, say, a traffic violation, and then pocket $54.13 a pop for locking them up.
“The problem with 287(g) is not that it’s badly managed (and as I recollect from previous OIG investigations, [it] always has been)—but that it’s a fundamentally bad idea that encourages racial profiling and discrimination by local law enforcement,” Lena Grabar, staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) said via email.
In response to the OIG’s recommendations, ICE is taking corrective measures that it plans to complete by 2019, according to ICE spokesperson Sarah Rodriguez. In an email statement, she told CityLab that “ICE is committed to strengthening the 287(g) Program, which enhances the safety and security of communities by partnering with state and local law enforcement agencies to identify and arrest criminal aliens.”
Previous research, however, has shown that embracing the 287(g) program can actually worsen public safety by alienating immigrant communities, and discourage them from reporting or helping solve crimes. “It doesn’t just affect immigrant communities—it affects anyone in the community,” Stageman said. “It’s an overall negative.”
While 78 jurisdictions have formally signed up for the 287(g) program, many others support federal immigration enforcement through a range of polices. Overall, there is a substantially larger number of counties that lean toward sanctuary policies: Earlier in the year, ILRC analyzed policies in 3,000-plus U.S. counties and found that 410 localities strengthened sanctuary policies in 2017, whereas 244 strengthened their support for immigration enforcement, including, potentially, by signing up for 287(g) agreements. ICE’s deportation machinery is fueled by law enforcement support. That’s why the real battle against the Trump administration’s immigration agenda is being played out locally.