Feds target Arpaio, jeopardize us

By Jessica M. Vaughan and James R. Edwards, Jr. on October 29, 2009

Related Publications: Backgrounder, Blog

Arizona Republic, October 24, 2009

State and local involvement in immigration-law enforcement is essential these days, as foreign nationals bent on terrorism remain a looming threat, as Mexican drug cartels and other international crime syndicates extend their reach into American communities, and as illegal workers increasingly resort to identity fraud to stay employed in scarce jobs.

By utilizing immigration-law-enforcement tools in connection with local crime-suppression operations in Maricopa County, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been keeping us all safer.

Yet Janet Napolitano's Department of Homeland Security has put politics above public safety by stripping several dozen of Arpaio's deputies of their investigative 287(g) authority.

These specially trained deputies could charge illegal aliens discovered during law-enforcement operations with immigration violations, putting them on the path to removal from the country rather than ignoring their illegal status. This program was separate from the hugely successful 287(g) jail operation, which has identified nearly 20,000 removable inmates in this county alone.

Previous audits of the county's enforcement program found no serious problems. But the Obama administration launched a Justice Department investigation into charges of racial profiling and abuse of authority, instigated by long-time opponents of immigration enforcement.

On Oct. 16, John Morton, Napolitano's Immigrations and Customs Enforcement chief, announced that the Maricopa County 287(g) crime suppression operations were "not consistent with new priorities, which is removing severe criminal offenders who pose a danger to society." Morton did not elaborate on which of the offenders identified by Arpaio's deputies were not severe enough to be removed.

A grating chorus of grievance lobbies has long complained about Arpaio's effective practices and about the 287(g) program. They claim it incites racial profiling and discourages immigrants from reporting crimes. These allegations have never been substantiated.

Morton's comments reveal that the decision to yank Arpaio's investigative program isn't about profiling, it's about priorities. And this administration's priority is to confine immigration-law enforcement to removing those illegal aliens who have been convicted of "serious" crimes, as defined by Homeland Security, while promising key constituencies, like the 287(g) opponents, that it will eventually enact "comprehensive immigration reform," including an amnesty for illegal aliens.

The 287(g) program isn't supposed to be about federal priorities. According to Lamar Smith, the Texas congressman who authored the legislation, it was designed to allow local law-enforcement agencies to assist the feds in removing illegal aliens. That's because the problem is too big for one agency and the challenges are different in each place.

The focus is universally on identifying and removing aliens who are a threat to the public well-being. Sheriffs in California use it against illegal-alien gang members. In Colorado, the state patrol uses it against alien smuggling. In Florida, they investigate terrorist and security-related cases. In Alabama, the focus is motor-vehicle and license fraud. In South Carolina and Florida, agencies use it to address identity fraud. North Carolina sheriffs target drunken driving.

In all of these places, the 287(g) program has helped reduce immigration-related crime, bringing big savings in criminal-justice costs and sparing future victims of crime, as illegal-alien offenders are removed from the community instead of recycled through the local jails. It saves federal dollars, too, as the locally paid 287(g) officers supplement the ranks of federal immigration agents at little cost to the federal government.

While about 90 percent of the 287(g) arrests, both nationally and in Maricopa County, have been at the jails, the investigative authorities, which are the ones Homeland Security took from Arpaio, are the most effective for disrupting the most vexing immigration-related crime problems, including transnational gangs, drug-trafficking organizations and alien smuggling.

Criminal aliens who are in jail are the low-hanging fruit. But the ability to bring in gang members for questioning, or determine the identity and status of foreign criminal suspects before they flee, or discover warrants before offenders are released on bond is an enormous boost to local law-enforcement agencies. Depriving Maricopa County of those authorities is not in anyone's best interest but the illegal-alien criminals.