Point of View

A program at odds with federal immigration powers

September 9, 2010 

The Obama administration is right to challenge Arizona's overreaching immigration law. But the lawsuit also raises an important question: Why is the federal government fighting Arizona's law while supporting initiatives with similar perils like the 287(g) program?

Arizona's law requires immigrants to carry documents and grants local police new powers to detain suspected undocumented immigrants. Similarly, under 287(g), the federal government enters into agreements with local law enforcement agencies that allow certain police officers and sheriff's deputies to detain undocumented immigrants, a duty normally reserved for federal agents.

The government's own reasoning in the Arizona case makes the argument for striking down other local Immigration and Customs Enforcement programs that undermine our national interest in maintaining clear and consistent immigration laws. Many of the objections raised by the federal government to the Arizona law also apply to 287(g). Consider these points from the Department of Justice lawsuit:

Local law enforcement will undermine federal attempts to balance immigration and enforcement priorities by diverting resources away from finding dangerous immigrants.

Arizona's law will lead to the detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants and citizens.

It will lead to a patchwork of state and local immigration policies across the country.

Following the logic of this argument, the goals of federal immigration laws are to target violent criminals, protect authorized immigrants and citizens and consistently enforce laws from state to state. But numerous reports show that 287(g) undermines all of these aims.

A recent study by UNC's Latino Migration Project found that 86.7 percent of all individuals booked through the 287(g) programs in North Carolina were charged with misdemeanors, most commonly traffic violations. And a policy brief prepared by the UNC School of Law notes that the overwhelming majority of those stopped by 287(g) officers are arrested for traffic offenses, primarily driving without a license (which undocumented immigrants cannot obtain).

This evidence shows that in many cases 287 (g) is not prioritizing "dangerous aliens" as envisioned when the law was enacted.

The UNC reports also find that wrongful detentions and even deportations have resulted from 287 (g) agreements. Because of insufficient training of local law enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, local law enforcement officers do not fully understand immigration laws, and the reports find that racial profiling often results. These are precisely the problems identified by the Department of Justice as possible outcomes of the Arizona law.

Finally, the federal government says that it does not want a patchwork of state and local immigration policies throughout the country. But 287(g) agreements create just such a hodgepodge of regulation. Currently there are 71 active agreements with local law enforcement nationwide. Each local agency interprets immigration law differently and enforcement varies by region. These inconsistencies entangle many well-meaning immigrants.

Many of the arguments made in the case of U.S. v. Arizona apply equally to the federal 287(g) program. It is difficult to see how the Obama administration can oppose one while supporting the other.

The nation desperately needs comprehensive immigration reform. In the meantime, we should discard inconsistent immigration programs that allow state and local officials to exercise duties of the federal government.

Kathleen Griesbach is a graduate student in Latin American studies at the University of California, San Diego, who is currently interning at the N.C. Justice Center's Immigrants Legal Assistance Project.

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