Hours after the Supreme Court’s Monday ruling to let stand the “show me your papers” provision of Arizona’s SB 1070, the Obama Administration made a quick attempt to show it wasn’t done fighting.
First, Attorney General Eric Holder released a statement, saying the provision “is not a license to engage in racial profiling and I want to assure communities around this country that the Department of Justice will continue to vigorously enforce federal prohibitions against racial and ethnic discrimination.” Then the Department of Homeland Security announced it planned to suspend the 287g program in Arizona. The program deputizes local police to check the immigration status of those they stop and to detain undocumented immigrants. It has for years been criticized for facilitating exactly the sort of racial profiling Arizona is charged with encouraging.
But the administration’s fighting words, it turns out, were almost entirely symbolic. Despite its opposition to SB 1070, the federal government has set itself up to be complicit in Arizona’s racial profiling.
In the days following the ruling, it has become clear to watchdogs that the federal government is not actually ending all of the 287g program in Arizona. Rather, it is stopping only a relatively small part of the program that allows cops to ask people on the street about their immigration status. The bulk of 287g enforcement, however, happens inside local jails, where jailers check the immigration status of people they suspect are undocumented—people who have been detained but in many cases not yet charged with a crime and certainly not adjudicated on that charge, and now people who may well have been detained based on racial profiling in the first place. So, the federal government will no longer deputize Arizona cops to roam the streets and act like ICE agents, but it will let them roam local jails and do so.
The 287g programs operate in three Arizona counties—Pima, Pinal, and Yavapai—and in the cities of Phoenix, Florence and Mesa, and in jails run by the state’s Department of Corrections.
More significant than 287g is Secure Communities, which operates in all local jails in Arizona. It’s more or less like 287g on speed. Through S-Comm, as it’s shorthanded, anyone booked into a local jail automatically gets an immigration-status check by ICE through a federal database. Anyone who turns out to be undocumented can then be flagged for deportation and moved to a detention center.
Also on Monday, DHS officials also said that they would not automatically detain people reported to them by Arizona police. The point was simple: the feds retain their power to decide who they’ll deport, not Arizona. There’s no disputing this.
But what’s not clear is how federal immigration officials can possibly avoid deporting people who were arrested on the basis of racially targeted police stops, as long as S-Comm and jail-based 287g programs are running. Once someone’s in the system, S-Comm has no way of sorting how they got there. So even if federal authorities suddenly change course and deport only those people they say are the highest priority, they’ll still be nabbing them in a way that the attorney general himself believes adamantly to be illegal.
Civil rights groups in Arizona are making this inconsistency the centerpiece of their advocacy strategy moving forward, now targeting the federal government to cease all collaboration with Arizona law enforcement.
In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security issued yesterday, nearly 100 civil rights groups wrote, “At a minimum, we ask that DHS fully suspend the operation of Secure Communities and terminate all 287(g) agreements in Arizona.”
“We write to you today as civil rights leaders in Arizona to tell you that we are afraid of what is coming,” the letter added. “We are afraid that the color of our skin will make us targets for harassment, perpetual arrest, and limitless detention.”