Study Indicates Problems with 287(g) Immigration Program

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A federal law granting local police and sheriffs the power to act as immigration officials when faced with dangerous criminals or terrorists has instead created a climate of racial profiling and community insecurity, according to researchers at the UNC School of Law Immigration and Human Rights Clinic.

The team of law students, led by Deborah Weissman, Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law and Director of Clinical Programs at UNC School of Law, and Katherine Parker and Rebecca Headen, lawyers with the ACLU in North Carolina Legal Foundation, released a report on the 287(g) program in North Carolina titled The Policies and Politics of Local Immigration Enforcement Law on Feb. 18.

According to the report, one of the unexpected and problematic outcomes of the law is reluctance among immigrants to contact police if they are victims or witnesses of crimes because of the risk of being jailed or deported themselves. Additionally, there are growing concerns that law enforcement officers are targeting Hispanic-appearing individuals for minor traffic offenses.

Weissman and her team began working on the report last year as a policy project assigned to law students enrolled in the Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic.

"The ACLU of NC brought to our attention that this relatively new program was catching on fast in North Carolina, and it brought with it some tremendous problems for the community," explains Weissman.

After an extensive review of the program and data from partner organizations, the federal government, and community interviews, they have produced a 152-page report on the program detailing its weaknesses and proposing solutions, including greater transparency and a functional system for complaints or appeals.

"Students studied the contracts between local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that grant immigration authority to local law enforcement and found that the agencies we most closely reviewed have failed to comply with these contracts. We found serious erosion of community trust, as well as legal concerns," says Weissman, who adds that the program may be costly for local law enforcement. "There are a number of law enforcement associations who think the program distracts from their core mission."

Attorneys with the ACLU of NC recognized something had to be done after negative stories and complaints from Latinos and others in 287(g) counties began to increase. "When communities begin to feel victimized because of their race or ethnicity, we encourage communication with law enforcement, but we also must investigate the matter. North Carolina has become a national testing ground for programs between ICE and local officers.

This report shows North Carolina, and the nation, the pitfalls of those programs," said Rebecca Headen, Staff Attorney with the ACLU of NC Racial Justice Project.

Because immigration law is complicated and constantly changing, Weissman notes that many local law enforcement officials may not have the most current information about an individual's true immigration status. What happens to individuals once they are arrested under this program is the subject of another project for Weissman and her team.

"The stories we hear are heartbreaking. The implementation of this program does not seem to comport with our time-honored values of due process of law" says Weissman, who believes concerned citizens should become involved with the decisions their local government makes about participating in these and similar programs. "People have to ask themselves what kind of community they want to live in."

Weissman recently appeared on WUNC's The State of Things in a segment of the show that discussed local immigration enforcement laws. A recording of the Feb. 19 show is available for people to listen to via the show's web site.

-February 18, 2009

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