Illegal immigrants netted by local police could be released

The Obama administration directive comes as the president begins to assert control of the immigration issue.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Officers in Arizona's Maricopa County begin a processing a suspected illegal immigrant in this Jan. 23, 2007 photo. Maricopa County's sheriff has used his local authority to act as a de facto immigration agent, but federal authorities are seeking to focus local law-enforcement efforts on illegal immigrants seen as posing a threat to the US.

Some undocumented immigrants swept up on minor charges such as fishing without a license won’t face federal detention. Instead, they’ll be released on their own recognizance under an Obama administration directive to a Nashville, Tenn., sheriff who charged 6,000 people with immigration crimes over the past 2-1/2 years.

The "release on recognizance" order by Immigration and Customs Enforcement – a branch of the US Department of Homeland Security – could affect at least some of the 66 US law enforcement jurisdictions that are part of a controversial program which, in essence, deputizes local police to act as de facto immigration agents.

The directive, made earlier this month, is the result of overcrowding in federal prisons, but also ties into a broader, ongoing review of the program, known as 287(g), and its impact on immigrant communities.

“There hasn’t been a [policy] change: ICE always puts a priority on criminal aliens who pose a national security threat,” says Matt Chandler, a Department of Homeland Security spokesman in Washington. But he acknowledges: “We are taking a deep, hard look at the program.”

The sheriff who received the ICE email earlier this month, Davidson County's Daron Hall, says that it's been standard practice over the past three years to detain most undocumented workers apprehended under the 287(g) program until their immigration court hearing.

Releasing nondangerous detainees could take a bite out of the 287(g) program, experts say. Pre-2006 studies showed that about 85 percent of illegal immigrants released on bond did not show up for their court date.

Releasing those who pose little criminal threat is a sign of shifting priorities on immigration policy in Washington, some say.

“There’s definitely a change in focus,” says Michelle Waslin, senior policy analyst at the Immigration Policy Center in Washington. “[The Obama administration] is reasserting federal control over immigration reform.”

President Obama is scheduled to meet Thursday with congressional leaders about immigration reform.

The 287(g) program has become politically popular in places like Arizona's Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio uses it to conduct drug and gang raids.

But it’s been widely criticized, too.

In Davidson County, Sheriff Hall hired a prisoner advocate, eased visitation rules, and even changed the jail menu to reflect Tex-Mex tastes after a Hispanic woman in custody gave birth while bearing shackles.

Hall says he met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano Tuesday morning at a sheriffs’ round table. Secretary Napolitano “wants to see the program more clearly defined so people aren’t doing it differently, which has been a problem,” Hall says.

The sheriff adds that there’s been no directive from ICE to stop processing people for minor violations: “I see this less as a shift in policy and more about economics” of prison management.

Immigration-rights groups say the new directive won't change anybody’s deportation status, but it will make finding counsel and making preparations for departure easier and more humane for families.

But critics counter that the program’s core problem remains its lacks oversight, and that it has become politicized in communities, particularly in the South and Southwest, where resentment of illegal immigrants runs high.

“The program was designed to focus our enforcement resources on people actually posing a threat, not just people who were fishing without a license,” which has happened four times in Davidson County, says Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition in Nashville.

Others see the directive as part of a broader Obama administration move to defang a core tenet of the 287(g) program: The ability of local police to deal with local crime problems such as drug smuggling and immigrant gangs. Last year, local police made 20 percent of all immigration-related arrests in the US.

“For ICE to say, ‘We need to constrict your ability to use the program’ could be a very big problem for those jurisdictions,” says Jessica Vaughan, senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.

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