Despite widespread criticism and reports of abuse, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano recently announced the expansion of the controversial 287(g) agreement programs to eleven new programs across the nation. The agreements, which took effect in 1996, allow local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration law.
DHS officials stressed that local police must focus their efforts on undocumented criminals who pose a threat to public safety, with less emphasis on those who commit minor crimes. In addition, the 66 police departments that already participate in the program must agree to pursue the criminal charges that prompted an illegal immigrant’s detention, meaning that an individual can not be arrested simply to determine their citizenship status.
Earlier this year, however, the Government Accountability Office issued a report concluding that federal immigration authorities failed to properly oversee the existing program or track its effectiveness. Immigrant-rights advocates, who have condemned the agreements for resulting in civil rights violations and racial profiling, expressed surprise that Secretary Napolitano did not make more significant changes to the law.
In a New America Media commentary written on July 23 by UC Davis law professor Bill Ong Hing, he notes the widespread abuse of 287(g) by xenophobic local police and expresses doubt that the expansion of such agreements can be justified by concerns for “public safety.”
Hing points to past incidents where local police have harassed innocent victims in their home and neighborhoods under the pre-text of finding “criminal aliens.” Ultimately, several officials have admitted that they were simply looking for undocumented immigrants, even those without criminal backgrounds.
How much faith can we put in the Obama administration’s new approach to the 287(g) program? Officials claim that ICE [Immigration Customs and Enforcement ,the federal immigration agency] will implement a complaint mechanism so that individuals can report problems with the program. They assure us that local law enforcement will be bound by federal civil rights law and will be required to provide interpretation services for immigrants who do not speak English.
I suppose that time will tell whether the new approach works. But a real concern is whether local law enforcement officials should be enforcing federal immigration laws at all.
Indeed, the author argues that these agreements actually hurt public safety because undocumented immigrants are afraid to report crimes for fear of being deported. A report released by the Police Foundation this year agreed with this conclusion, stating 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.
Since 2006, deputized officers have identified more than 120,000 suspected illegal immigrants nationwide for deportation through the 287(g) agreements. Many of these immigrants have not committed a serious crime and are being jailed for minor infractions, such as driving without a license, that would have typically warranted a citation, not arrest.
One story that pointedly demonstrates the abuse resulting from these agreements is that of Juana Villegas, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who was nine months pregnant when she was arrested by a police officer in Nashville, Tennessee for a routine traffic violation on July 3, 2008. Nuestra Vida, Nuestra Voz covered the story last summer and received many responses from individuals who were concerned and touched by her story in comments.
After her arrest, immigration agents performed a background check and determined that she was an undocumented immigrant. She was designated by officers as a medium security inmate in the county jail.
On the night of July 5, when Mrs. Villegas went into labor, she was handcuffed and accompanied by the deputy in the ambulance to the Nashville General Hospital. She went through labor with a sheriff’s officer standing guard in her hospital room, while one of her feet was cuffed to the bed most of the time. She was not allowed to speak to her husband when he came to retrieve their newborn son on July 7.
After she was discharged, Mrs. Villegas was taken to court on July 8, where she pleaded guilty to driving without a license and was sentenced to time served. Immigration agents immediately released her, while a deportation case stands. As of February 2009, Juana Villegas was facing deportation and suing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for copies of her immigration records so she can fight the case.
The National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH), as a member of the steering committee for the National Coalition of Immigrant Women’s Rights (NCIWR), has developed a campaign to highlight the treatment of detained immigrant women in detention facilities through their own voices.
The story of Juana Villegas is only one illustration of how the that the reproductive health of immigrant women is profoundly affected by immigration policy. Numerous reports analyzing the abuse and maltreatment of immigrant women in detention centers have highlighted the failure of ICE to provide administrative oversight and consistent standards over the detainment process.
The 287(g) agreements have been criticized by law enforcement officials, government agencies, and immigrants-rights advocates alike for faulty premises and widespread misuse. Moreover, the history of abuse and the risk for future violations demands that the expansion of federal immigration powers to local law enforcement be accompanied by stalwart oversight facilities. For more information on immigration reform as a matter of reproductive justice, click here.
To take action against the harmful 287(g) programs click here and send an email Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.
By Ivette Sanchez, Policy and Advocacy Intern