Enforcement Pays

By Jessica M. Vaughan and James R. Edwards, Jr. on March 19, 2009

Human Events, March 19, 2009

With the widespread murderous violence between warring Mexican drug cartels spilling over the U.S. border and the continuing threat from radical Islamic terrorists domestic and foreign, the government has to spend its law enforcement dollars where they can do the most good. Yet Democratic leaders in Congress and the Obama administration appear ready to scale back one of the most successful and cost-effective immigration law enforcement programs ever launched.

This program, known as 287(g), allows police, sheriffs, and other local law enforcement agencies to provide direct assistance to federal agents in identifying illegal alien criminals and putting them on the path to removal from the country. By expediting the removal of foreign lawbreakers, 287(g) saves taxpayers money.

Its cost: about $60 million over the last three fiscal years. In contrast, ICE spent more than ten times that annual cost -- about $219 million -- last year alone to remove 34,000 aliens under the fugitive operations program. There are local benefits, too; the Arizona Department of Public Safety saved nearly $3 million in incarceration costs in just the first year.

Currently, illegal aliens who make it past border patrol agents, consular officers and port of entry inspectors are largely home free. The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has just a few thousand agents, concentrated in cities, to deal with a widely scattered illegal population that recently reached 12 million, including nearly seven million in the work force and as many as 400,000 in jails and prisons. This mismatch works well for illegal aliens, especially the criminals.

For a long time, local communities have been stuck with the economic and social consequences. But in 1996, Congress heeded their pleas and gave them this tool to address public safety problems associated with illegal immigration and help out the feds at the same time. State and local law agencies who sign up get advanced training for selected officers, access to immigration databases, and authority to seek removal for criminal aliens.

Interest soared after 9/11, and, since 2006, officers in the program have identified about 90,000 criminal aliens. According to ICE documents we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act for a forthcoming report, 287(g) arrests represented about one-fifth of all ICE criminal alien arrests in 2008. All of the removable aliens were identified by trained officers in the regular course of their duties in corrections, highway patrol, or criminal investigations. They include murderers, rapists, gangsters, drunk drivers, and even a few suspected terrorists.

The demand for the program is the best testament to its popularity. Sixty-seven jurisdictions are now taking part, and another 42 are on the waiting list.

The program’s success has made it a prime target of anti-immigration enforcement advocacy groups. The ACLU, Appleseed Network, and allies for years have denounced the program, published breathless reports, and launched campaigns to help local activists thwart its adoption in their communities. Opponents in Congress recently commissioned a GAO report, and on March 4, House Homeland Security committee chair Bennie Thompson convened a three-hour hearing to investigate alleged ICE mismanagement of the program.

Detractors complain that 287(g) officers identify mainly “minor” criminals and that they often are abusing their authority. At the hearing, Muzaffar Chishti, of the Migration Policy Institute, noted with alarm that many of the 287(g) jurisdictions were in the Southeast, and sought to link these communities’ concern about illegal alien crime to what he called their “troubled legacy of civil rights violations and racial profiling,” wink, wink. Critics demand that ICE rein in the locals by establishing tighter guidelines, including a requirement that only “serious” criminals be charged with immigration violations, and that only correctional institutions be allowed to participate.

Such hysterics are to be expected from the usual suspects, but are a little unusual from the GAO. Their report dinged ICE for an apparent lack of “documented program objectives” that would provide a true measure of success. What the GAO inexplicably missed is that Congress created this program to serve primarily local objectives, not ICE objectives. California sheriffs use the program to have illegal alien felons and gangsters removed. In Florida, they target suspects in homeland security investigations. In Alabama, one focus is on preventing driver’s license fraud. The Colorado state patrol uses the program to combat human smuggling on the highways. In South Carolina, the problem is bogus documents in the work place. In Massachusetts, it’s drug dealing and gangs. ICE should not have to force local agencies, who are the best judge of what local problems are, into a one-size-fits-all program. And, since not all criminal aliens are in jails, the task force, investigative and highway patrol options must be preserved.

As for racial profiling and abuse of authority, even the GAO could not turn up even a single instance.

The move to narrow the scope of the 287(g) program is wrapped up in concerns about program management but really boils down to a control issue. Key Democratic lawmakers and the Obama administration have signaled that they intend to minimize immigration law enforcement, thus preserving the status quo of a de facto amnesty for those who breach the borders. Congressional leaders need to resist any moves to stifle local involvement in immigration law enforcement and preserve local agencies’ ability to address immigration-related public safety problems in their community.