To build his highly touted deportation force, President Donald Trump is reviving a long-standing program that deputizes local officers to enforce federal immigration law.
The program received scant attention during a week in which Trump announced plans to build a border wall, hire thousands more federal agents and impose restrictions on refugees from Middle Eastern countries.
But the program could end up having a significant impact on immigration enforcement around the country, despite falling out of favor in recent years amid complaints that it promotes racial profiling.
More than 60 police and sheriff’s agencies had the special authority as of 2009, applying for it as the nation’s immigration debate was heating up. Since then, the number has been halved and the effort scaled back as federal agents ramped up other enforcement programs and amid complaints officers weren’t focusing on the goal of catching violent offenders and instead arrested immigrants for minor violations, like driving with broken tail lights.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio used the program most aggressively in metro Phoenix, and he became arguably the nation’s best-known immigration enforcer at the local level in large part because of the special authority. In a strange twist, he was thrown out of office in the same election that vaulted Trump to the presidency, mostly because of mounting frustration over legal issues and costs stemming from the patrols.
In his executive order this week, Trump said he wants to empower local law enforcement to act as immigration officers and help with the “investigation, apprehension, or detention” of immigrants in the country illegally.
The move comes at a time when the country is sharply divided over the treatment of immigrants. Cities such as Chicago and San Francisco have opposed police involvement in immigration while some counties in Massachusetts and Texas are now seeking to jump in.
Proponents say police departments can help bolster immigration enforcement and prevent criminals from being released back into their neighborhoods, while critics argue that deputizing local officers will lead to racial profiling and erode community trust in police.
Cecillia Wang, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, said police bosses who want to get into immigration enforcement should consider what happened when 100 of Arpaio’s deputies were given the federal arrest power.
The longtime sheriff used the authority to carry out traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. The patrols were later discredited in a lawsuit in which a federal judge concluded Arpaio’s officers had racially profiled Latinos. The lawsuit so far cost county taxpayers $50 million.
“There are people like Joe Arpaio who have a certain political agenda who want to jump on the Trump bandwagon,” Wang said, adding later that the Arizona sheriff was “most vocal and shameless offender” in the program.
When asked to comment on Trump’s effort to revitalize the program, a Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman said the executive orders would speak for themselves.
Traditionally, police stayed out of immigration enforcement and left those duties to federal authorities. But a 1996 federal law opened up the possibility for local agencies to participate in immigration enforcement on the streets and do citizenship checks of people in local jails.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement trained and certified roughly 1,600 officers to carry out these checks from 2006 to 2015.
The Obama administration phased out all the arrest power agreements in 2013, but still let agencies check whether people jailed in their jurisdiction were citizens. If they find that an inmate is in the country illegally, they typically notify federal authorities or hand them over to immigration officers. Today, more than 30 local agencies participate in the jail program.
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