Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins is doing his best to try to get illegal immigrants who commit crimes off the streets of his Maryland community, but the Obama administration and immigrant rights groups are foiling him.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released 25 of the 98 illegal immigrants county deputies arrested and tried to process so far this year through the federal government’s 287(g) program. In 2008, the final year of the Bush administration, ICE only released two of 100 illegal immigrants the county turned over.
“Right now there’s lack of enforcement of immigration laws. But if we run this program the right way, we can do what we can to try to enforce them and get these criminals off our streets,” Mr. Jenkins told The Washington Times. “In my heart, I truly believe we’re doing the right thing.”
The 287(g) program was established to let state and local police play a role in immigration enforcement. Deputies and officers are trained to interview potential suspects in jail and run their names through ICE’s databases to discover if they’re in the country legally. If someone is found to be in the country illegally, the county then turns them over to ICE, which can initiate removal proceedings or release them based on agents’ discretion, considering issues such as an immigrant’s health and type of crime committed.
Sheriff Jenkins signed up for the 287(g) program six years ago, figuring it was a common-sense collaboration with ICE to help rid the community of the illegal aliens who were fueling local gang violence.
He doesn’t know how many criminals have been deported as a direct result of his program, but nationwide, the number removed through the 287(g) program has dropped. In 2009 it was 45,308, but in 2013 it fell to 11,767, according to internal ICE statistics.
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Sheriff Jenkins said 25 percent of those detained through the county’s program committed serious felonies, compared with 11 percent just a year ago. None of the felons was released from the program. There’s also been a spike in the number of detainees who have known gang associations. This year, under the program’s dragnet, 11 gang members with violent histories were detained, as were four more with suspected gang ties.
Not everyone agrees the program is a good idea.
The American Civil Liberties Union says 287(g) leads to “racial profiling” and says the program is “beyond repair.” The ACLU has challenged the program in some jurisdictions, including a recent case in North Carolina.
Human Rights Watch is also against the program’s implementation.
“We have expressed concerns about 287(g) because it intertwines immigration enforcement with public safety,” said Clara Long, an immigration researcher with Human Rights Watch. “There is a large number of migrants and undocumented who are more vulnerable to crime and are less likely to get protection from police than with people who are documented, or citizens — leaving whole communities unsafe. We’ve heard stories of people who hesitate to call police even when they’re victims of very violent crimes.”
The National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino activist group, has also been critical, concluding in a 2010 report that the program allows police “perilously unchecked authority” to target “nonviolent and nonthreatening immigrants.”
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The intense criticism has spurred changes by the Obama administration.
In 2012 the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, eliminated the task force part of the program that trained police to enforce immigration laws when out in the community. It kept the jail enforcement part of the program, which allowed local police and sheriff’s departments to screen immigrants it was already charging with crimes.
The changes put an end to 17 stand-alone programs and seven joint programs in 12 states.
The administration also proposed cutting 287(g)’s funding by $17 million, leaving more than a dozen local communities who wanted in on the program in limbo.
This year, no new programs have been approved by DHS, and the Justice Department took the Alamance County, North Carolina’s sheriff to court on a civil rights case, charging racial profiling stemming from his use of the 287(g) program. The trial concluded in September, and a judge will rule in upcoming days.
While the Department of Justice was conducting its investigation into the Alamance sheriff’s office, ICE did a separate — and purely coincidental — audit of the county’s implementation of the 287(g) program and found it to be in compliance with ICE’s goals, citing only a few paperwork errors. But after the Justice Department announced its findings, ICE terminated the county’s 287(g) agreement.
Now only 35 localities participate in the program, from a high of 75 during the end of President George W. Bush’s term.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the Justice Department’s lawsuit may be politically calculated to chill other jurisdictions considering joining the program.
She said the danger of being labeled a racial profiler creates too much of a risk for some departments.
“This administration is doing what it can to scale back the program — not because it’s ineffective or expensive, but because advocacy groups that are opposed to enforcement oppose it bitterly,” said Ms. Vaughan. “Not because there was racial profiling or abuse of authority, but because the program increases deportations.”
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which initiated the lawsuit in North Carolina, declined to discuss its motivations for doing so, citing ongoing litigation. It referred questions about the 287(g) program to ICE.
ICE, for its part, supports the program.
“The 287(g) program expands ICE’s ability to initiate immigration enforcement action against criminal aliens and those others who fall within the ICE civil immigration enforcement priorities,” said an ICE official in an emailed statement to The Times. “As such, the program acts as a force multiplier for the agency and enhances public safety in participating jurisdictions by identifying potentially dangerous criminal aliens and ensuring they are removed from the United States and not released back into our communities.”
Still, concerns for discrimination remain.
“Supporters of this measure say they’re just screening people within the jail, and not actively going out and pulling them over to make arrests, but that’s not what’s happening,” said Brian Schmitt, an immigration lawyer and member of the Frederick Immigration Coalition, which opposes the use of the 287(g) program.
“If a cop sees a young Hispanic man driving a beat-up car, and let’s say the cop is a bad apple, then he may pull that guy over for a taillight out and ask for his identification,” said Mr. Schmitt. “Many people in Maryland don’t have IDs, so that’s enough to bring him into the station and put him in the system. He now has a detainer against him for a minor traffic violation. That’s not helping anyone.”
Under the 287(g) program, if a suspect is picked up driving without a license, found to be illegal, has no criminal history and was not previously deported, they’re voluntarily released, Mr. Jenkins said.
“Everyone against this program just doesn’t want any kind of immigration enforcement at all,” Mr. Jenkins said. “With the border crisis, every county in the nation is going to be a border county. It’s going to be chaos. Every county needs to enforce the laws of this nation, and that’s what we’re doing with this program.”