Questions Raised Over New Rules Governing Local Enforcement of U.S. Immigration Laws

PHOENIX, Arizona –The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office leads the nation when it comes to the number of local officers deputized by the federal government to enforce U.S. immigration laws. Now the program known as 287 (g) is about to change. But the impact of those changes, announced on Friday by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, is unclear here and around the country. Napolitano announced an expansion of the 287 (g) program while making apprehension of criminal immigrants its priority.


Salvador Reza leads a demonstration in Arizona for immigrant rights. Photo:Valeria Fernandez

The news brought mixed reaction in Arizona, where use of the program has raised concerns over alleged racial profiling and abuse by deputies under the command of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Some applauded the changes to the federal-local agreement as a positive step that would ensure civil rights protections for undocumented immigrants. Others argued the program should end because it has caused local law enforcement go after undocumented immigrants with no criminal record, a deviation from its traditional role of fighting crime.

“If she wants to show good faith she should have suspended the agreement (in Maricopa),” said Salvador Reza, a member of PUENTE a local pro-immigrant movement that opposes 287 (g). “Unless they implement immigration reform that works, what is going on right now is going to keep on dividing our families,” he added.

Currently, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) is under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for civil rights violations.

Mary Rose Wilcox, a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, and a critic of Sheriff Arpaio, said she is “cautiously optimistic” about Napolitano’s changes. Wilcox said the new rules include a way for those arrested under 287 (g) to file abuse complaints.

“My understanding is that this would make it more difficult for him (Arpaio) to do raids,” she said.

That is why Arpaio may want to pull out of the agreement with the federal government. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, Brian Lee, initially said they believe this may limit the way they conduct their immigration enforcement.

Arpaio has 160 deputies trained under a 287 (g) agreement that started in 2007. He has used these powers to conduct controversial “crime suppression sweeps” in Latino neighborhoods were immigrants have been arrested for minor traffic violations and other infractions of the law.

A key component of the new rules is that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will ensure that people are not arrested for minor offenses “as a guise to initiate removal proceedings,” and that actual criminal charges are pursued.

Yet, this might not change much for Arpaio who said he’ll continue to enforce state immigration laws still at his disposal.

Arizona has some of the toughest policies in the nation regarding immigration. They include an employer sanctions law against companies that knowingly hire undocumented labor, which has been used as grounds to conduct workplace immigration raids.

“Arpaio doesn’t need 287(g) to arrest people, the Arizona criminal code has changed so drastically that he’s above and beyond the control of Napolitano,” said Aarti Shahani, a researcher with Justice Strategies and lead author of the report “Local Democracy on ICE.” In the report Shahani says police have been using immigration powers to go after corn-vendors and traffic violators without probable cause.

“There’s not need of a 287 (g) to make our community safe. The police can choose to do their job which is prioritizing dangerous criminals and violent acts,” said Linda Brown, president of the Arizona Advocacy Network, a non-profit agency that defends civil rights.

Likewise, Shahani maintains that 287 (g) has opened the door for racial profiling when local law enforcement uses its immigration enforcement powers to detain individuals when there is no reasonable suspicion of a crime having been committed .

The 287 (g) program is named after a section of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996 allowing the federal government to deputize local law enforcement officers and jailers as immigration agents.

Currently, 66 enforcement agencies in the nation have signed such agreements.

The recent changes announced by DHS respond directly to criticism of the program in a March Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit of 29 agencies that have 287 (g) agreements.

In the report GAO said that four local law-enforcements agencies were arresting immigrants for minor violations like speeding, contrary to the objective of the program.

Muzaffar Christi, a lawyer at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group, said the revision would put “the federal government in the driver’s seat,” instead of local officials. Yet, he believes mixing the role of local police with immigration enforcement hurts community policing.

Rather than limiting the scope of the program, some believe the new rules will actually expand its use. On Friday, DHS announced it signed eleven new 287 (g) partnerships, two of them with the cities of Mesa and Florence in Arizona.

Chris Newman, legal programs director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said the recent announcement is a continuation of the failed enforcement policy of the Bush administration.

“Actions speak louder than words, if immigration reform will happen this year why not end 287 (g),” he asked.

Under the new rules all current 287 (g) agreements will undergo a review and will have to be re-signed.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has 90 days to renegotiate the terms of its Memorandum of Understanding with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.