Local police agencies empowered by the federal government to enforce immigration law must focus their efforts on criminals who pose a threat to public safety, with less emphasis on those who commit minor crimes, Department of Homeland Security officials announced Friday.
The announcement aims to clarify a controversial program that deputizes police to turn over suspects or criminals to immigration authorities for possible deportation. Normally police do not enforce federal law.
The law, known as 287(g), took effect in 1996.
Most of the participating police agencies signed up under President George W. Bush, whose administration promoted it as a tool against dangerous criminal immigrants.
Immigrant rights groups said it led to civil rights violations and racial profiling.
Some police departments check immigration status in a wide variety of crimes. Friday’s directive lays out federal priorities: violent crimes such as rape or robbery, as well as major drug offenses; followed by property crimes, such as burglary and fraud.
All 66 police departments that already participate in the program must sign a new, uniform memorandum within 90 days.
They also must agree to pursue the criminal charges that prompted an illegal immigrant’s detention. In other words, police can’t make an arrest just to find out if someone is in the country illegally.
“This new agreement promotes consistency across the board to make sure that all of our partner agencies are abiding by the same standards,” said Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler.
The memorandum says that police agencies will be bound by civil rights laws and subject to oversight by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as they arrest and detain illegal immigrants for possible deportation. Any agency that cannot prove that it is following those standards could lose its federal authority.
In addition to the changes, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that 11 new police agencies have signed agreements, none of them in California. (The sheriffs in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties already participate in the program.)
Though some law enforcement agencies, including those in California, check the status only of those in custody, others do so when arresting people on the street. Since 2006, deputized officers have identified more than 120,000 suspected illegal immigrants nationwide, officials said.
There have been congressional hearings on the program, and the Government Accountability Office issued a report this year concluding that immigration authorities failed to oversee the program or track its effectiveness. The report also cited inconsistency among the agencies, with some focusing on serious crimes and others on minor crimes.
A Police Foundation report this year said that the costs of 287(g) outweighed the benefits and that police should be prohibited from arresting and detaining people solely to investigate their immigration status. The report said the program hurt public safety because illegal immigrants were afraid to report crimes for fear of being deported.
Foundation President Hubert Williams said Friday that he agreed with the emphasis on serious crimes but that he would be watching closely to see whether the federal government increased its oversight of the program.
“I think Homeland Security is going in the right direction,” Williams said. “We feel that the 287(g), if properly directed, could be a useful tool. What we did not want was police officers going around and checking green cards.”
But William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, said the government shouldn’t limit the powers of police.
“To see them backtrack and water down 287(g) shows they are not serious about immigration enforcement,” he said.
Immigrant rights groups said they were surprised that Napolitano did not make more significant changes to the program.
“What Napolitano is saying by this expansion is that she is going to subordinate the goals of keeping communities safe in favor of response to anti-immigrant hysteria,” said Chris Newman of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Los Angeles.