GAO Report Says 287(g) Illegal Immigration Program Lacks ‘Key Internal Controls'

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Immigration officials have failed to develop "key internal controls" over a controversial program that trains state and local police to identify illegal immigrants involved in crime, so some departments are focusing on minor violations rather than on serious offenses, according to federal investigators.

A Government Accountability Office report released last night was requested by congressional oversight panels in advance of hearings on the program to be held today by the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Known as 287(g) after the legal provision authorizing it, the identification program has expanded rapidly in recent years, receiving $60 million between 2006 and 2008, training 951 state and local law enforcement officers in 67 agencies -- including the police forces of counties including Prince William -- and resulting in the arrests of at least 43,000 immigrants, almost 28,000 of whom ultimately were ordered out of the country.

The report said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had told GAO investigators that the program was intended to address "serious crime . . . committed by removable aliens."

But the report said that, of 29 partner agencies reviewed, four said they used their 287(g) authority to process for removal immigrants stopped for minor violations such as speeding, carrying an open container of alcohol and urinating in public, "contrary to the objective of the program."

In Prince William County and elsewhere, 287(g) has proved a lightning rod for critics who charge that communities are using it to intimidate and that it can lead to a form of profiling in which officers stop individuals who appear Latino or foreign on the pretext of minor violations in order to check their immigration status.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently ordered a review of the 287(g) program. But to the dismay of immigrant advocates, who have been lobbying the Obama administration to curtail the program, Napolitano's questions included an effort to find how to expedite more agreements with state and local police forces.

Although the GAO report noted that many local authorities said the program had helped make their communities safer, the authors found that ICE, the agency that administers 287(g), has failed to provide its state and local partners with clearly defined objectives for the program or to create a consistent system for supervising them.

The authors warned that confusion over the purpose of 287(g) could result in referrals of a "unmanageable number" of low-priority illegal immigrants to ICE as well as "misuse of authority" by local officials.

According to the report, one sheriff said that his understanding of his authority was that "287(g)-trained officers could go to people's homes and question individuals regarding their immigration status even if the individual is not suspected of criminal activity."

"Although it does not appear that any officers used the authority in this manner," the report continued, "it is illustrative of the lack of clarity regarding program objectives and the use of 287(g) authority by participating agencies."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company