Illegal-immigration enforcement program takes a toll on U.S. Hispanic populations, report says

Police Chief Charlie T. Deane speaking with immigration lawyer Elinor Tesfamariam after a recent meeting on the county's new immigration policy.
Police Chief Charlie T. Deane speaking with immigration lawyer Elinor Tesfamariam after a recent meeting on the county's new immigration policy. (By Giuliana Nakashima -- The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 31, 2011; 6:34 PM

A program that deputizes local police officers to enforce immigration laws sent the Hispanic population plummeting in many places across the United States, including Prince William and Frederick counties, according to a report released Monday by the Migration Policy Institute.

In some cases, the initial decrease was dramatic: Between 2007 and 2009, Frederick County lost 61 percent of its Hispanic population, and Prince William County lost almost 21 percent, according to the report from the nonpartisan institute, which used census data and school enrollment figures. The Hispanic populations have rebounded, but not to their previous levels.

The study focused on seven places - including Prince William and Frederick - that have adopted the federal 287 (g) program, which is in use by at least 68 state and local law enforcement agencies.

Under the program, local police officers are trained to determine the immigration status of people they arrest and flag those found to be in the country illegally to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Once illegal immigrants are transferred to ICE custody, the U.S. government decides whether to begin deportation proceedings.

Although ICE has said it prioritizes deportation of people with serious criminal backgrounds, some of the jurisdictions participating in the program seek to remove as many undocumented immigrants as possible, regardless of their criminal background, the study found.

Frederick was among them, the institute found. In fiscal 2010, the county detained 198 undocumented immigrants through the 287 (g) program, and 120 were traffic offenders, the study says.

Prince William took a more target approach, the study found. The county detained 846 illegal immigrants in 2010, including 237 traffic offenders. In Loudoun County, 12 of the 47 people detained had committed a traffic offense.

In Frederick and Prince William counties, fewer than 10 percent of those detained were arrested for the most serious, Level 1 crimes, which include murder, rape and armed robbery. In Las Vegas, by contrast, more than 50 percent of illegal immigrants detained were arrested for the most serious crimes.

"The wide variation reflected in our study suggests that state and local actors, rather than ICE, are significantly defining the program's enforcement priorities," says the report, which based its findings on ICE data and interviews conducted in the seven localities.

Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins denied that the county is trying to deport as many illegal immigrants as possible but said that undocumented traffic violators are potential threats.

"How do you say that a [serious] Level 1 offender is more dangerous than an immigrant who's out driving a car illegally who could potentially hit someone and kill them?" Jenkins said, noting that those arrested are "in the country illegally to start with, and beyond that, they've committed a crime. How many free passes do you give someone?"

The report says that targeting serious criminals makes more sense as an enforcement strategy, particularly when government resources are limited.

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