BENSALEM, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Dozens of police departments in the
United States have been granted new powers, or are seeking them, to check
the immigration status of people they arrest, aiding President Donald
Trump’s broad crackdown on people living in the country illegally.
Since Trump took office in January, 29 departments have joined a special
program under which they are deputized to perform some tasks of immigration
agents, doubling its size in 10 months, according to the Immigration and
Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. And the administration hopes that is
just the beginning.
Documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that
the administration has also had contact with scores of additional jurisdictions
about the program, and 38 of those told Reuters in interviews they have
submitted applications for the program or are potentially interested in
The program, known as 287(g), deputizes local officers trained by ICE to
use federal records to vet arrestees they suspect of being in the country
illegally and then turn them over to federal agents if they are.
The Department of Homeland Security has said in the past that police forces
taking part in the program have flagged tens of thousands of people for
The broad expansion of the program comes as Trump seeks to accelerate arrests
and deportations of people living in the United States illegally. The
large number of departments expressing interest in the program has not
been previously reported.
Most of the police departments that have joined, or are seeking to join,
the program have relatively small populations, typically fewer than 100,000
residents, with small immigrant populations. In contrast, the roughly
three dozen so-called “sanctuary cities” that have limited
their cooperation on immigration enforcement have a median population
of half a million people and larger foreign-born populations, according
to a Reuters analysis.
Under President Barack Obama, the 287(g) program was downsized and its
funding reduced amid concerns that some participating police departments
were over-zealous in their targeting of Latinos. Critics also said it
eroded trust of police in immigrant communities. By the end of fiscal
year 2016 only 32 agreements were left in place, down from a peak in 2010
when some 70 jurisdictions were participating. Today, 60 departments in
18 states participate.
Three-quarters of the agencies that have already signed 287(g) agreements
or are interested in doing so are in counties that voted for Trump in
2016, according to a Reuters analysis of electoral data.
ICE would not confirm which jurisdictions had shown interest until they
had signed agreements. An ICE official, who asked not to be named, said
interest increased after Trump took office and signed an executive order
that included expanding support for the program.
TOWN VS CITY
The township of Bensalem, Pennsylvania, just half an hour up the road from
Philadelphia, is one of those hoping to join the 287(g) program.
Fred Harran, director of public safety in the city of 60,000, says that
any immigrant in the country illegally who commits a crime, even a misdemeanor
like shoplifting or possession of a small amount of drugs, should be considered
for deportation, and he welcomes help from ICE.
“If deporting you out of this country when you commit a crime is
a tool at my disposal, you are darn right I am going to use it,”
In neighboring Philadelphia, police commissioner Richard Ross Jr. favors
a different approach. Like many police chiefs in large cities with significant
immigrant populations, he wants immigrant residents to feel comfortable
cooperating with authorities to solve crimes.
While Philadelphia and other big cities say they will turn over serious
criminals to ICE, they do not believe local police should be doing the
work of federal immigration agents.
“There’s no way in the world that you would want to come forward
as a source of information if you believe you are in jeopardy of being
deported,” Ross testified at a court hearing in October. Philadelphia
is suing the Trump administration over its threats to cut federal funding
to sanctuary cities.
In Bensalem, Harran says he first reached out to ICE about joining 287(g)
during Obama’s presidency. But in 2012, Obama ended the part of
the program he had hoped to join. It had allowed local officers out on
patrol to question and arrest people suspected of violating immigration
laws. Obama left in place the part of the program Trump has now expanded.
In a February memo, then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said ICE
would consider bringing back the discontinued part of the program. An
ICE official familiar with the program said he was “unaware of any
plans right now” to revive it.
Once a jurisdiction is approved for the 287(g) program, it designates local
personnel to be trained at a federal facility. Local jurisdictions pay
for travel, housing, and expenses for officers during training. ICE pays
to install its databases and other technology in local offices for certified
officers to use.
Cities not participating in the program can still approach ICE if they
have suspicions about arrestees, but the process can be time consuming
Participating jurisdictions also, as part of their agreement with ICE,
have the option of signing separate contracts to house immigrant detainees
for a fee.
“It’s an opportunity to make money for a county that is facing
economic hardship,” said Chris Kleinberg, the sheriff of Dakota
County, Nebraska. He said it has applied to be part of the program.
Of the 98 jurisdictions that have existing agreements or are interested
in getting them, at least 27 already house people for ICE, according to
ICE data through April 2017.
Some police departments, however, have backed down from their support of
287(g) in the face of political pressure.
Orange County, the only place participating in program in California, will
end its agreement on Jan. 1 following the passage of a statewide ‘sanctuary
bill,’ which prevents police from inquiring about people’s
immigration status throughout California, said Ray Grangoff from the sheriff’s
CONCERNS ABOUT PROGRAM
ICE says the 287(g) program increases the number of immigrants it is able
to deport. A 2010 report from the DHS inspector general said the program
accounted for “a significant portion of nationwide ICE removal activity.”
In fiscal year 2008 for example, 287(g) officers identified 33,831 immigrants
for deportation, or 9.5 percent of all removals during that period, the
Detractors question the program’s value.
A 2011 study of seven 287(g) jurisdictions by the Washington-based nonpartisan
think tank Migration Policy Institute found the program did not target
the most serious criminals and led to an increase in immigrants’
mistrust of local authorities. The study found that in the first 10 months
of fiscal year 2010, half of the immigrants flagged to ICE in the 287(g)
jurisdictions had committed misdemeanors, including immigration violations
that are often civil not criminal offenses.
“Many of the immigrants that are arrested in traffic stops or for
loitering are not the real threats to public safety,” said Chris
Rickerd from the American Civil Liberties Union.
In November, the ACLU identified 14 jails and counties applying for the
program as having had problems in the past, including poor detention conditions
or accusations of racial bias.
One such place is Alamance County, North Carolina, which had its 287(g)
program terminated in 2012. The Justice Department sued Sheriff Terry
Johnson that year over allegations his office discriminated against Latinos
at traffic stops and checkpoints. At trial, the department presented evidence
that officers used derogatory terms like “wetback” and “taco
eater,” which the sheriff’s office denied.
The judge dismissed the case, but in 2016 the county entered into a settlement
with the government to avoid an appeal, committing to “bias free” policing.
Johnson said in a phone interview that he was contacted by ICE about rejoining
the 287(g) program earlier this year. He applied, and in March he sent
a letter to Tom Homan, the acting director of ICE, saying it was “one
of the best law enforcement programs” he had ever been involved
with during his 45-year career.
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