Las Vegas 287(g) Program Draws Criticism as Undocumented Immigrants Detained for Minor Crimes Face Deportation

Strictly speaking, any individual who is in the United States without the benefit of a visa, permanent residence, or citizenship can be removed from the country. It is widely known that the United States has an estimated twelve million individuals who lack immigration authorization, but it is also generally understood that their presence (and work) here lowers our cost of living and makes many goods and services less expensive. Because of these quiet benefits and because it needs to prioritize its efforts, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency under the Obama Administration has claimed that it is chiefly interested in removing illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes and are a continuing threat to our communities. A recent review of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department’s immigration practices achieve this goal or simply erode the trust of immigrants by deporting people for minor violations.

In an article in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, reporters analyzed thousands of arrest records from the past two years. In 2008 the Las Vegas police signed onto a 287(g) agreement with ICE, effectively deputizing the police as assistant enforcers of federal immigration laws in addition to their municipal duties. The data lend support to both critics and supporters of the 287(g) program.

On the one hand, some 3,300 individuals were arrested and then placed under ICE holds pending a review of their immigration status. Over 1,000 of these people were arrested for very minor crimes, such as jaywalking or fishing without a license. Las Vegas police explain that the arrests were made in high-crime areas, and they defend the practice of arresting anyone for any valid reason in a wide-net strategy aimed at ensnaring serious offenders. Civil rights and immigrant rights advocates argue that this strategy is vulnerable to abuse and racial profiling, but the police maintain that they only consider immigration status after they have established strong grounds for making an arrest.

On the other hand, the data show that over 2,300 individuals were determined to be in the country illegally but were not placed under ICE holds. This suggests that the Las Vegas police are using substantial discretion to determine which unauthorized immigrants should be placed into immigration proceedings and which should be let go. Taking the Metropolitan Police at their word, this means that the police make many arrests and only make the decision to place an ICE hold when they determine that an individual has criminal history that makes him or her a threat to the community.

The unanswered question is, Is the 287(g) program a necessity? The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department appears to be utilizing the tool responsibly to expedite the deportation of unauthorized immigrants who have committed serious criminal acts. But we have also seen gross abuses of the 287(g) program, such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s “sweeps” of immigrant neighborhoods in Maricopa County, Arizona. Arpaio has made removing illegal aliens his personal crusade, dividing his community and destroying any cooperation between the immigrant community and the police. Without that link, Arpaio and his deputies are less able to investigate crimes involving immigrants.

Perhaps Las Vegas and other communities should follow the lead of Washoe County, which contains Reno. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Department has integrated the federal government’s immigration status database and FBI background check system, allowing them to make the same discretionary decisions as the Las Vegas police. The difference is that Washoe County’s system does not impact arrest patterns; those who are arrested in the course of normal police work will be placed under ICE holds only if their criminal history warrants it. On the other hand, the 287(g) program has the potential to impact normal police work in an insidious way without improving law enforcement’s ability to make good decisions about which arrests to refer to ICE.

To learn more about ICE enforcement and how criminal convictions can impact your immigration status, contact us in Las Vegas or Reno for a free consultation.

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