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Immigration Program Expands, Despite Abuse Record

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/07/arpaio.jpgSheriff Joe Arpaio (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office)

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has made a name for himself using controversial tactics targeting illegal immigrants in Arizona. The chief law enforcement officer of Maricopa County and author of the book “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” Arpaio boasts that he’s arrested some 30,000 undocumented immigrants, many of whom he’s put to work on chain gangs, paraded in pink underwear before news cameras, and housed in sweltering plastic tents clustered behind coils of concertina wire.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

But as William Finnegan recently documented in The New Yorker, Arpaio’s publicity stunts – enabled by a federal immigration program known as 287(g) that deputizes local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws — aren’t just humiliating. Prisoners have filed thousands of legal claims of abuse against Arpaio and his deputies – and by families of those who’ve died under his watch. A federal investigation found Arpaio’s deputies used “stun guns” on inmates strapped into restraint chairs; some have died in those chairs. One lawsuit brought by a dead prisoners’ family ended in an $8 million settlement after “a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoners, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.”

Although Arpaio is now the target of a federal investigation for civil rights violations, he’s never lost his authority to enforce the federal immigration laws under the 287(g) program.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is in charge of that program, and recently announced its expansion to 11 more jurisdictions. The former U.S. Attorney and then Governor of Arizona, Napolitano was reportedly allied with the politically popular Arpaio and long tolerated his abuses, referring at a press conference to the lawsuit she settled with him while a federal prosecutor as “lawyerly paperwork.”

In announcing the expansion of the 287(g) program, which conservative and restrictionist groups have long been encouraging, Napolitano hailed its success at supporting “local efforts to protect public safety by giving law enforcement the tools to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens.”

“The 287(g) program is an essential component of DHS’ comprehensive immigration enforcement strategy,” said ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton on July 10. “The new agreement strengthens ICE’s oversight of the program and allows us to better utilize the resources and capabilities of our law enforcement partners across the nation.” Perhaps in part because of the 287(g) program, criminal prosecutions of immigrants over the past year were up almost 150% over five years ago.

That’s not an unmitigated success in the eyes of immigrants’ advocates, however. Last week, 25 civil rights and community groups denounced DHS’s plans to expand the 287(g) program, citing previous findings of its abuse.

“DHS is fully aware that the abusive misuse of the 287(g) program by its current slate of agencies has rendered it not only ineffective, but dangerous to community safety,” said Andrea Black, Coordinator of the Detention Watch Network in a statement. “It is surprising Napolitano did not simply shut this program down,” she added. “Expanding this failed program is not in line with the reform the administration has promised.”

In addition to expanding the program’s reach, Napolitano promised to create new standardized agreements between DHS and local law enforcement authorities that would specify the extent and limits of local authority and emphasize that the point is to stop violent crime, not to apprehend undocumented immigrants. Those limits have been criticized by some restrictionist groups who support the current program.

Those changes attempt to respond to a report released in March by the General Accountability Office, which concluded that the 287(g) program, instead of concentrating on serious crime as intended, was being used by some local police to have immigrants deported for such minor infractions as speeding, carrying an open container of alcohol and urinating in public. Advocates have also claimed the program encourages widespread racial profiling.

The new standardized agreements do little to get at the problem, critics claim. In fact, it may make the situation worse by concealing how the program operates.

The changes make “no serious attempt at discouraging illegal racial profiling or reducing the conflict between sound community policing principles and the expansion of this program,” said Omar Jadwat, staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, in a statement issued last week. In addition, “the new MOA [Memorandum of Agreement] actually takes several disturbing steps backward, particularly in the area of transparency.”

For example, the new agreement restricts the release of information about the program and its use, saying all information “obtained or developed as a result of this MOA is under the control of ICE and shall be subject to public disclosure only pursuant to the provisions of applicable federal laws, regulations, and executive orders.” Documents created by the agency or developed pursuant to the agreement “shall not be considered public records.”

“ICE claims that they have responded to a lot of the concerns around the 287g program,” says Brittney Nystrom, legal director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrants’ advocacy group. But “the language in the new standardized agreement is not substantially different than the old agreement. In some ways it’s even a step backward.”

The tightly controlled information is one of those steps back, she says. “More data is needed around the 287g program,” specifically concerning who is being arrested and whether the arrest is for a minor infraction or a serious crime. “That would address whether these are pretextual arrests” — arrests that use the immigration laws to target generally law-abiding immigrants — “or whether ICE is doing what it claimed, focusing on serious dangerous criminals. If most arrests are for things like traffic violations or fishing without a license, that would raise a red flag.”

The new agreement doesn’t specify whether DHS is collecting that kind of data, but it does specify that any data it does collect will not be made public. “Before it was not clarified one way or the other,” said Nystrom. “It’s always been a concern that data collection is insufficient. Any change that would limit the amount of data around these programs is a step in the wrong direction,” she said.

DHS shouldn’t have expanded the program without first determining whether the changes solve the problems, say many advocates. “Any changes should have been made first, and evaluated before expanding the program,” said Nystrom.

Past abuses of the program include the deportation of a developmentally disabled U.S. citizen to Mexico, the shackling of an undocumented pregnant women in labor, and the arrest of an immigrant who’d called on police to protect her sister from domestic violence. Many more have reportedly been deported under the program despite being lawful residents or having legitimate claims to remain in the United States.

Such incidents have generated widespread fear in immigrant communities, say advocates and many law enforcement officers. The head of a national police officers’ association in March testified to Congress that the program actually hurts law enforcement efforts because it drains resources and “undermines the trust and cooperation with immigrant communities that are essential elements of community policing.”

In February, Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization, found that 87 percent of jurisdictions participating in the program did not have high crime rates but were “undergoing an increase in their Latino populations higher than the national average.” Instead of focusing on serious crime, Justice Strategies found, “police resources are spent targeting day-laborers, corn-vendors and people with broken tail-lights.”

Although the new DHS agreements now state more clearly the program’s objectives, “not mentioned in there is how they’ll enforce those priorities,” said Joan Friedland, Policy Director for the National Immigration Law Center.

The new agreement attempts to address racial profiling and pretextual arrests by requiring law enforcement to pursue criminal charges to their resolution. But advocates say it’s not clear what that means, or if that will really address the problem.

“Will police interpret that as, we have to convict people? What happens to deferred prosecution?” asked Friedland. In the past, police could defer prosecution for a minor crime in exchange for a monitored period of good behavior.

“If they’re trying to combat profiling and pretextual arrests we applaud them for their intent,” said Nystrom. “I’m just not sure this is the right path.”

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