A federal program that allows certain local law enforcement officers to act as immigration agents will be scaled back at the end of this year, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The 287(g) immigration enforcement program authorizes local police to question individuals about immigration status and make related arrests. In the past, local jurisdictions interested in participating would enter into one of two types of agreements with ICE. There were task force agreements, which focused on street-level enforcement, and jail agreements. The street-level agreements expire on December 31 and will not be renewed by ICE.
The agency said in a December 21 statement that "other enforcement programs, including Secure Communities, are a more efficient use of resources for focusing on priority cases."
Immigrant rights advocates have opposed the 287(g) program since its inception in 1996, claiming that it encourages racial profiling and erodes trust between community members and police. Mary Giovagnoli, the director of the Immigration Policy Center, said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the end of the street-level enforcement agreements.
"Most everyone who monitors this believes that it's a start but it's not enough," she said.
Even as 287(g) is dialed back, the federal government has aggressively expanded another enforcement program since 2008, making this a kind of trade off. The program, called Secure Communities, requires local police to cross-check the fingerprints of all arrestees against a federal database. Local police and jails are asked to hold suspected immigration violators for federal authorities.
The core complaints about 287(g) -- racial profiling and erosion of public trust -- have also been levied against Secure Communities, and the reach of the latter program is much broader.
Secure Communities is already implemented in 97 percent of jurisdictions across the country, while 287(g) is active in only 57 law enforcement agencies in 21 states, and will shrink to 40 agencies after the street-level agreements expire in 2013.
A major difference between the two is that Secure Communities does not authorize local police to inquire about immigration status or make an arrest on that basis. But once a person is arrested, regardless of the crime, that person's fingerprints are run against a federal immigration database.
That gives local police a kind of de facto power to enforce immigration laws, if only through the arrests they make.
"So they'll just arrest the person on whatever pretext they can find to get them into the jail," said Cecillia Wang, the director of the Immigrants' Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. "And then the person has their immigration status checked."
Along with announcing the end of the street-level 287(g) agreements last week, ICE also spelled out specific guidelines for when local law enforcement should hold an individual for federal authorities.
The memo says that "relatively minor misdemeanors" should not result in a person being detained by local police for federal immigration authorities, and that enforcement should be focused on those with criminal convictions and repeat immigration offenders.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that it prioritizes immigration enforcement, but some advocacy groups say that isn't the case.
A review of deportation statistics by the Immigration Policy Center showed that for the 2011 fiscal year, 55 percent of deportations were either of low-level criminal offenders (minor crimes resulting in sentences of less than one year), immigration violators or those with no criminal convictions.