New and improved 287(g)?

By Michelle Chen Jul 16, 2009

Since the mid-1990s, the 287(g) program has become synonymous with racial profiling and police abuse. Now that civil rights advocates, local officials, editorial pages, and even some police have criticized the program as draconian and shortsighted, the government has responded—by expanding it. The 287(g) program enables local police to partner with the feds for training and support to bust people on immigration violations. According to a recent GAO report, a lack of “internal controls" has led to huge inconsistencies in the implementation of the program, encouraging police to indiscriminately round up immigrants for minor violations. ICE’s local heroes (about 1,000 trained so far) arrested and detained tens of thousands in the last fiscal year alone. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano’s response to these failures is to mend it, not end it. While expanding the program to new jurisdictions, ICE is promising more oversight and "consistency." The revised program will supposedly focus on immigrants who commit serious crimes—the kind that actually harm people—instead of civil immigration violations. The basic framework will remain in place: wedding an endemically biased criminal justice system with a dysfunctional immigration policy. Rights advocates have pressed the Obama administration to scrap the program and focus instead on comprehensive and humane immigration reform. But they are also troubled by the opacity of the new program guidelines. Omar Jadwat of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project said in response to the ICE expansion:

No amount of tinkering with the 287(g) program is likely to solve the fact that it threatens public safety and undermines the basic guarantee of equal treatment by increasing profiling of people who look or sound ‘foreign’… Still, DHS’s refusal to disclose these new documents is a disappointing and legally unsupportable step back from with Bush administration practice and makes it impossible to fully evaluate the changes to this highly controversial program.

Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum anticipates more of the rampant xenophobia made famous by Maricopa County:

Any enforcement regime that targets that population is a waste of time and money and a band-aid on an open wound, at best. We need to insist that immigrants come here through legal channels and that the immigrants already here get into the legal system – and create the mechanisms for both of those things to happen. That is what comprehensive immigration reform is about and it makes much more sense than holding out for the fantasy that we can deport 12,000,000 undocumented immigrants, that they will leave on their own because of enforcement, or that no more will come. We need to do more than tweak and expand enforcement programs; we need to change the laws.

But the biggest worries about 287(g) are the ones we’re not hearing, because they are muffled by terror. In Morristown, New Jersey, one of the most recent inductees into the 287(g) club, the increasingly alienated Latino community is laying low. Diana Mejia of the local advocacy group Wind of the Spirit told the Morristown Green, “We were in shock actually. It was muy duro, muy dificil… When we talked about immigration reform, with this new [Obama] administration, we didn’t expect these things to happen.” Community organizers say immigrants are already starting to leave the area out of fear. Perversely, some anti-immigrant activists might actually welcome that collateral impact, and balk at any effort to rein in 287(g). At the same time, even tighter standards won’t control the mentality that inspires these crackdowns. The details of the new ICE policies may come out through the ACLU’s Freedom of Information Act request, but the problem is already in plain sight: the government, in its zeal to root out "undesirables"–however they are officially defined–has never given immigrants a reason not to hide. Image: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (