A project of the Center for Community Change

Communities and police caught in the line of fire

After a recent trip to Nashville, TN to research local law enforcement of federal immigration law in Davidson County, a recent Washington Post editorial on this very issue caught my attention (see below).

Davidson County is the first county in Tennesee, and one of only a handful of counties in the country, to sign an MOU, or memorandum of Understanding with ICE allowing officers in the county jail to enforce federal immigration law. While over 40 localities have applied for an MOU and are awaiting ICE confirmation of their applications, very little is known about the successful impementation of these types of programs.

As the entire country waits for Congress to pass a fair and workable immigration reform bill, state and local governments are left trying to deal with a terribly broken immigration system. A few localities are looking to MOUs in what as known as the “287g” program as a supposed “safeguard” around immigration. Others, including the major cities chiefs, view this program as a major hinderance on public safety and a detriment to the effective function of local and state law enforcement departments.

I will be writing much more on this subject in the next few weeks because so little is known about this program or its consequences. Though the 287g law was passed in 1996 no county or state chose to pursue this program before 9-11. Up until that point, most localities, beginning with Salt Lake City, decided that this program was not right for them and their communities. After 9-11 and the continuing militarization of our borders, that view has changed.

But what do we know about 287g? What do we understand about the consequences of these programs? My research is continuing around this, and I am interested in hearing the thoughts of others in the field.

As anti-immigrant forces attempt to block a workable and just immigration reform bill, our local law enforcement and our communities are being caught in the politic wagers between local, state, and federal governments.

I’m interested to hear your responses to the lead editorial in the Washington Post:

Police on the Spot
In the absence of a workable immigration system, state and local officers are forced into a quandary.

Monday, June 25, 2007; Page A18

DESPITE THE objections of police chiefs all over the country, officers at the state, city and county levels are increasingly being drawn into what should be the federal government’s responsibility to deal with illegal immigrants. In some instances officers are compelled to arrest undocumented immigrants a fter routine traffic infractions if a computer shows that they are facing outstanding federal warrants. In this way local police are being made complicit in federal deportations, which subverts their attempts to establish ties and cooperative relations with immigrant communities. Hence the police chiefs’ objections.

This is a potentially serious problem. Violent gangs have gained a dangerous foothold in many immigrant communities, including some in the Washington area. To contain them, police need informers and other kinds of help in those neighborhoods. But what immigrant informer will come forward if he knows that as soon as police enter his name into a database, they will be compelled to arrest him because he failed to appear at a hearing on his immigration status or a deportation proceeding some years ago?
 
A handful of police departments have refused to enforce the federal warrants, which include about 250,000 from the Immigration and Custo ms Enforcement agency. Most departments, including those in this region, are enforcing them, albeit unenthusiastically in some cases. Lawsuits have been brought challenging the inclusion of the warrants, which are for civil violations, in a national criminal database.

All of this is symptomatic of the underlying sickness, which is the nation’s failure to devise a workable immigration policy and the resulting problem of 12 million illegal immigrants. The tensions between federal and local law enforcement will only worsen until lawmakers in Washington figure a way out of the impasse — one that recognizes the reality that most of those immigrants are an integral part of the U.S. economy and are here to stay. As the Senate prepares to take up its immigration bill for the second time in a month, it should be mindful of how tenuous the status quo has become.

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