Feds scrap state immigration enforcement program

287(g) programs

287(g) programs deputize local and state law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws. At the county level, the programs often operate through jails, giving sheriff’s deputies authority to question people about their legal status and detain and transport them for immigration violations. But the Georgia Department of Public Safety also runs a field program that can lead to deportations. The Obama administration announced Friday it was ending the state’s program.

Processed for deportation/Deported or voluntarily departed:

Cobb 10,869/7,065

Gwinnett 8,801/5,055

Hall 3,969/2,632

Whitfield 2,444/1,519

Georgia Department of Public Safety 39/16

Deported or voluntarily departed through 287(g):

1. California 47,218

2. Arizona 42,782

3. North Carolina 18,448

4. Texas 16,617

5. Georgia 16,287

Source: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The Obama administration is scrapping part of a controversial program that deputizes state and local police to help enforce federal immigration laws in Georgia and many other states.

The 287(g) program — named after the federal law that authorizes it — gives police the power to question people about their legal status, serve arrest warrants, and detain and transport criminals for immigration violations.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued a news release Friday saying it is terminating the “task force” part of the program in which police help with street-level immigration enforcement in Georgia and other states. That part of the program will end Dec. 31.

ICE officials said they will continue using another 287(g) program that operates inside jails across the nation, including those in Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall and Whitfield counties.

Also Friday, the Obama administration disclosed it had set a record for deportations in the fiscal year that ended in September, expelling 409,849 people. That is the largest number removed in ICE’s history and is up 3 percent from last year, when the previous record was set at 396,906.

The 287(g) program started in 2002 during the Bush administration. As of October, there were 57 task force and jail-based programs operating in Georgia and 20 other states. Since fiscal year 2006, 16,287 people have been deported or allowed to voluntarily leave the country in connection with Georgia’s programs, federal records show.

The government partly tied its decision Friday to the national rollout of a different enforcement program called Secure Communities that relies on fingerprint screening.

“ICE has concluded that other enforcement programs, including Secure Communities, are a more efficient use of resources for focusing on priority cases,” the agency said in its news release.

ICE officials confirmed Friday that they are not renewing agreements they have with 25 state and local law enforcement agencies to operate the task force version of the program. The Georgia Department of Public Safety’s program is among those that are ending this year. As of April, 22 state patrolmen and officials from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Department of Driver Services had received training to participate in the program. Through 287(g), state officers have focused on stopping specific crimes such as identify theft, drug trafficking, money laundering and human smuggling.

A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said the government’s decision “doesn’t have any practical effect on the state level.”

“All local law enforcement are authorized to work with the federal government to enforce the immigration laws,” Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said in an email.

Georgia state police had not processed anyone for deportation through the program since before October of last year, according to federal statistics as of Oct. 8 of this year. The Georgia State Patrol previously pointed to “manpower issues” and the long distances officers would have to travel to transport suspected illegal immigrants to federal immigration detention centers in the state.

Lt. Kermit Stokes of the Georgia State Patrol, who helps coordinate the state’s 287(g) program, said the duties associated with the program are in addition to a state trooper’s other duties.

“This authority is a tool that these few troopers can use when needed,” Stokes said in an email this week before ICE made its announcement. “We do not dictate that they must use this authority if other means to effectively enforce the law are available.”

The Obama administration initially said it was focusing on phasing out the 287(g) task force programs such as the one Georgia state troopers operate. But the administration has prompted some speculation it is preparing to also scrap the programs operating in jails in Georgia and elsewhere.

The speculation started this fall when the government notified sheriffs across the nation that it was extending their expiring 287(g) agreements just until the end of this year. Those agreements typically last three years. The government said it will later inform sheriffs how their programs will be “impacted.” ICE issued a statement late Friday saying it will continue to use such jail-based programs.

Civil and immigrant rights groups are calling on the government to shut down all 287(g) programs. They say they promote racial profiling, erode the trust immigrants have in police and distract officers from more important crime-fighting duties.

This month, the American Civil Liberties Union and 161 other organizations sent a letter to the Obama administration calling for the end of all 287(g) programs. The letter highlighted how the government shut down 287(g) operations last year in Maricopa County, Ariz., after the Justice Department said it found evidence of discriminatory policing practices there, including illegal arrests of Hispanics. (The Justice Department took similar action Thursday, filing a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff of Alamance County, N.C., alleging his office discriminated against Hispanics through its 287(g) program. The government shut down that county’s program this year.)

Georgia sheriffs say 287(g) has reduced the strain illegal immigrants are placing on taxpayer-funded resources in their communities, such as public schools. They want the program to continue.

Still, the Obama administration has proposed cutting a quarter of its $68 million budget for 287(g) operations nationwide and eliminating the least productive ones.

These deliberations are under way as a newly re-elected President Barack Obama is vowing to tackle a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws next year. Among other things, he is proposing a pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Cobb’s jail, the number of people processed for deportation through its 287(g) program has steadily declined in each of the past three years. The high reached 3,747 in fiscal year 2008. Last year, it was 1,283. Cobb Sheriff Neil Warren said the decline shows the program is working.

In an email this week before ICE’s announcement Friday, Warren wrote, “This is exactly what was expected and is a clear indication of the success of the program.”