DHS Reshapes Its Immigration Enforcement Program

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By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 16, 2009

A controversial federal program that deputizes state and local law enforcement agents to catch illegal immigrants is expanding under the Obama administration, despite changes announced this summer intended to curb alleged racial profiling and other police abuses.

The Department of Homeland Security is expected to report Friday morning that a small number of the 66 participating agencies have dropped out because of the new federal requirements, officials said. And those losses are offset by applications from 13 additional police and sheriff's departments, a federal official said, speaking on condition of anonymity before the formal announcement.

In the Washington area, sheriff's offices in Frederick, Loudoun and Prince William counties intend to continue to participate, according to local officials.

Nationwide, the program identified about 60,000 illegal immigrants for deportation over the past year, the highest number since the program was expanded nationwide in 2006. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in July said agencies that receive federal grants and training under the program would have 90 days to agree to new terms aimed at ending controversial police practices identified by congressional auditors and civil rights groups. Critics cited cases in which police conducted roadside stops and neighborhood sweeps aimed at Latinos and other ethnic groups, often arresting minorities for traffic and other minor offenses in pursuit of illegal immigrants.

Changed Focus

Instead of scaling back the program, as its critics wanted, DHS has reshaped it. The agency has reined in local police units that target illegal immigrants at large, directing the units instead to focus on those who commit major drug offenses or violent crimes, especially those already incarcerated. Most prominently, the agency cut back authority it had given to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, according to Arpaio. His operations in the Phoenix metropolitan area had led to charges of racial profiling and three federal investigations.

Although those and similar tactics had drawn the most controversy, they accounted for a small fraction of the 135,389 illegal immigrants caught under the program, according to new federal data obtained by The Washington Post. The vast majority -- 94 percent -- were found by checks at local and state jails. DHS is moving to expand jail checks, adding such agreements with eight new agencies, a federal official said.

"We've refocused the program on identifying and removing serious criminal offenders, whether in jail or on the street," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because final decisions had not been made. The official said the new rules show that the Obama administration is intent on enforcing immigration laws against dangerous illegal immigrants and upholding civil rights.

DHS has determined that in Maricopa County, for example, the program to identify illegal immigrants already in jail -- accounting for nearly 90 percent of the county's total arrests under the program -- may continue, the sheriff said. But the agency found that the county's task force aimed at finding illegal immigrants in the community was not being operated "in a manner consistent with our law enforcement policies," the U.S. official said.

ICE spokeswoman Kelly Nantel declined to comment on the status of any participating agency.

Critics on Both Sides

Jessica Vaughan, an analyst with the Center for Immigration Statistics, which seeks greater immigration restrictions, said the administration needs local agencies to be satisfied with the new federal rules to maintain its credibility over immigration enforcement. Nevertheless, the changes did not please the most vocal critics on either side.

Supporters of tougher enforcement have championed Arpaio.

"This unbelievable move by the Obama administration represents a politicized attempt to hinder one of our most effective illegal immigration enforcement mechanisms," Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

Arpaio, whose, 4,000-employee department has caught more illegal immigrants under the program than any other agency -- more than 20 percent of the nationwide total -- vowed to defy the new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement rules and continue arrests in the community. He said deputies will conduct another "crime suppression" raid Friday and turn over illegal immigrants found violating traffic laws or other civil offenses to federal authorities. If ICE refuses to take them, Arpaio said, he will take them to the next closest federal agency, probably the U.S. Border Patrol at the Mexican border.

"I can't understand why they are bullying this law enforcement agency for political reasons when we've been so successful," Arpaio said in an interview. "We're going to go out again [Friday] -- the same way we've been doing it."

A coalition of more than 500 local and national civil liberties and immigrant groups have opposed the federal program, saying it hampers public safety by intimidating immigrant communities from reporting crimes to the police and diverting police from investigating more serious crimes.

Reps. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) wrote President Obama last month on behalf of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, calling on the White House to terminate the program.

Omar C. Jadwat, staff attorney with the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project, cited a report last month by the University of California at Berkeley School of Law as evidence that the administration's shift to jail checks would encourage some local police to arrest and book more minorities so their immigration status could be determined once they were behind bars. That study found that police in Irving, Tex., working with a separate ICE program, increased arrests of Hispanics for minor offenses by nearly 150 percent between April and September 2007.

"Focusing on jail programs as opposed to these [investigative] task force programs doesn't eliminate the serious problems we've seen with profiling," Jadwat said.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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