Feds Fail to Prevent Police Abuse
Monday, March 09, 2009 at 1:00 pm
When Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaiao parades undocumented immigrants in pink underwear before news cameras, puts them to work on chain gangs and houses them in sweltering “tent cities” behind coils of barbed wire, it’s easy to dismiss him as a rogue public official who’s taken legitimate law enforcement a bit too far.
But Arpaio’s publicity-seeking stunts in Arizona are enabled by a federal policy that deputizes police officers to enforce U.S. immigration laws, with few rules and little supervision to prevent exploitation. Recent reports and testimony reveal that the program, known as 287(g) for the section of the law that created it, and intended to target terrorism and violent crimes, has encouraged officers to arrest and imprison people who look foreign for such minor infractions as driving with a broken tail-light, carrying an open alcoholic beverage container, or fishing without a license.
The result has been such gruesome treatment as forcing a pregnant woman arrested for an alleged traffic violation to endure labor in shackles; deporting a disabled U.S. citizen to Mexico where he was reduced to begging on the streets; and jailing an immigrant who’d called the police to save her sister from domestic violence.
Many more immigrants may have been deported under the program despite being lawful residents or having legitimate claims to remain in the United States. The citizenship of people with birth certificates from midwives in Texas, for example, is now being questioned by federal authorities.
Although the 287(g) program has existed for more than a decade, it’s only recently come under serious scrutiny. At least three separate studies plus Congressional testimony in just the last month have concluded that a lack of regulations or clear directions to local law enforcement and insufficient oversight by federal authorities has permitted the program’s widespread abuse.
Created in 1996, the 287(g) program expanded significantly starting in 2006, as local law enforcement embraced it in response to community complaints about undocumented immigrants and Congress’sl failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Between 2006 and 2008 it received $60 million, training more than 950 state and local law enforcement officers in 67 agencies across the country, resulting in the arrests of at least 43,000 immigrants, reports the General Accountability Office in a study released last week. More than half were ultimately ordered to leave the country.
Although Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said the program was intended to address “serious crime . . . committed by removable aliens,” the GAO reported that, of 29 local agencies reviewed, four said they used their 287(g) authority to process for removal immigrants stopped for minor violations such as speeding, carrying an open container of alcohol and urinating in public, “contrary to the objective of the program.”
One sheriff told the GAO investigators that his understanding was that “287(g)-trained officers could go to people’s homes and question individuals regarding their immigration status even if the individual is not suspected of criminal activity” — which is not the purpose of the program.
Such actions by local police actually undermine law enforcement rather than helping it, said Thomas Manger, the police chief of Montgomery County, Maryland at a hearing of the House Committee on Homeland Security last Wednesday. Manger, who chairs an association representing the 56 largest police departments in the country, said that many police chiefs don’t participate in the program because it “undermines the trust and cooperation with immigrant communities that are essential elements of community policing,” while overwhelming local police departments and draining their resources that should be spent on arresting criminals, not enforcing the immigration laws.
The GAO also reported that many local sheriffs told GAO investigators that they believed the program had helped improve public safety. But the government had not required the kind of consistent and systematic reporting that would reveal whether that was actually true. The evidence therefore remains largely anecdotal.
Charles Jenkins, sheriff of Frederick County, Maryland, for example, testified last Wednesday that the program had helped him combat an increase in crime that he claimed “can be tied directly to the unchecked flow of illegal immigrants through our southern borders with Mexico.” He said the program “has allowed us to identify and place into removal proceedings nine members of . . . notoriously violent gangs” as well as “a Nicaraguan military-trained sniper and a Salvadorean guerrilla trained in knife fighting.”
What Jenkins failed to explain, however, is why he needed the immigration laws to make those arrests, since all of those are criminal offenses. What’s more, local law enforcement is already authorized to check the immigration status of anyone in jail for criminal activity and to report them to the immigration authorities.
“The role of state and local police is enforcing their criminal laws,” said Joan Friedland, immigration policy director at the National Immigration Law Center. “Once they take on the mantel of civil immigration enforcement, they really undercut the role that serves their communities. And they’re bound to do it through racial profiling because that’s the way they will identify people.”
Racial profiling is one of many problems addressed in a report released in February by Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization focusing on humane and cost-effective approaches to law enforcement. Based on a year-long analysis, the group found that “61 percent of jurisdictions that have entered into 287(g) agreements have crime rates that are lower than the national average. Census data show that 87 percent, however, are undergoing an increase in their Latino populations higher than the national average.” Rather than focusing on serious crime, Justice Strategies found, under 287(g), “police resources are spent targeting day-laborers, corn-vendors and people with broken tail-lights.”
Indeed, ethnic profiling and mistreatment of immigrants is now the subject of a class action lawsuit filed against the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona, who in addition to calling himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” now stars in a reality show called “Smile … You’re Under Arrest!,” on Fox. Among his victims bringing the lawsuit are Manuel Nieto, Jr., a U.S. citizen who was detained in front of his family’s auto repair shop after police heard him listening to music in Spanish.
“Joe Arpaio might be the most extreme and obnoxious version of 287(g) run amok, but he is not aberrational,” said Joanne Lin, legislative counsel for the ACLU, which represents the Arizona residents suing Arpaio. “We have examples all across the country of local law enforcement using their authority under the program to harass U.S. citizens and people who look foreign.”
Last summer, for example, Juana Villegas, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was nine months pregnant, was pulled over while driving in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee. She was arrested and jailed, and later shackled to a hospital bed with a guard watching over her even as she began to give birth. Her husband was forbidden from seeing her. After she was discharged from the hospital, she wasn’t allowed to see her nursing infant, or even to use a breast pump. She suffered an infection and her baby became jaundiced.
And in May 2007, Peter Guzman, a 30-year-old developmentally disabled American citizen living in Los Angeles, was deported to Mexico after being jailed for trespassing. His family searched for three months until they found him, homeless and begging in Tijuana.
Then just three weeks ago in Tavares, Florida, 23-year-old Rita Cote, a Honduran immigrant, called the police to save her sister, who was being severely beaten by her boyfriend. Instead of arresting the boyfriend, officers arrested Cote in front of her three small children and imprisoned her for being undocumented.
Not surprisingly, there’s growing concern that the program is deterring many immigrants from reporting crimes or sharing information about criminal activity with local law enforcement.
In February, the University of North Carolina law school and the ACLU, after an extensive investigation of the 287(g) program in North Carolina, released a report concluding that immigrants were afraid to contact police if they were victims or witnesses of crimes out of fear of being jailed or deported. “Local law enforcement has established immigration checkpoints in areas frequented by Latinos including churches, flea markets, and trailer parks,” said Rebecca Headen, staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina. “Latinos have been arrested for improper vehicle tags, driving without a license, and fishing without a license. State troopers and local sheriffs’ officers detained a bus with Latino passengers for hours for no reason other than the assertion they look foreign. Across North Carolina, Latinos now live under the constant threat that a trip to the grocery store or to Sunday worship could result in the deportation of their families.” Local sheriffs have denied the charges.
Meanwhile, the original mission, to target terrorists and violent criminals, in many communities has been abandoned. Muzzafar Chishti, Director of the Migration Policy Institute, testified at the House committee hearing last Wednesday that based on his organization’s studies, by 2006, some local law enforcement agencies were “seeking to apprehend as many unauthorized immigrants as possible. . . . The focus appears to have shifted from dangerousness of targeted immigrants to raw numbers.” Law enforcement officials have denied that they create quotas for arrests of undocumented immigrants.
Immigrants’ advocates worry that too little is known about the effectiveness and abuses of the program to allow it to continue without further study. The ACLU last week urged Congress to temporarily suspend the program and then study its impact across the country. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who’s been accused of being soft on the popular Sheriff Arpaio when she was governor of Arizona, has said she is reviewing her agency’s immigration enforcement efforts, including the possibility of expanding the 287(g) program.
“We don’t have the national data,” said Lin, of the ACLU. “If ICE headquarters actually built in meaningful controls so we know what the nature of these criminal arrests is, then we’ll know how it’s being implemented. Now it’s anecdotal or piecemeal information. And immigrants who complain about the program’s abuses are putting themselves at risk.”
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