House looks at local agencies enforcing immigration law
By Suzanne Gamboa
Montgomery County (Md.) Police Chief J. Thomas Manger, right, with Frederick County (Md.) Sheriff Chuck Jenkins, and Government Accountability Office's Homeland Security and Justice Issues Director Richard Stana, testify on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, March 4, 2009, in Washington. (AP Photo)
WASHINGTON — The Homeland Security Department has failed to ensure that local and state law enforcement partners pursue serious criminals and don't misuse their authority while enforcing immigration law, government investigators say.
Dozens of state and local agencies have partnered with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to carry out immigration laws, the domain of the federal government. But ICE, a Homeland Security agency, has not clearly explained that serious criminal offenders, such as drug smugglers, are the target, the Government Accountability Office said in a report obtained by The Associated Press.
The GAO also found that ICE is not properly supervising its local and state partners nor collecting data needed to assess the program, according to the report GAO was to release Wednesday.
As a result, some local and state law enforcement agencies have focused on people arrested for speeding, carrying an open container and urinating in public, the GAO said. The shortcomings could lead to officers misusing their authority, the GAO said.
The House Homeland Security Committee, led by Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., was to examine the so-called 287(g) program in a hearing Wednesday.
"While I do not know whether 287(g) is an effective program, I do know that it is a program that has been accused of racial profiling. And that accusation should concern all of us," Thompson said in written remarks prepared for the hearing.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has ordered a review of several of her department's programs, including the 287(g) partnerships.
Sean Smith, the department's spokesman, said she had not yet seen the GAO report and welcomed it. The department's review is not complete, he said. But he said Napolitano takes seriously allegations of civil rights abuses and the GAO's findings and "will move swiftly and decisively should her review uncover a lack of controls."
Smith added that ICE has begun work on some of the recommendations made by GAO. It is coming up with a new model for its agreements with local and state officials that will incorporate some of the GAO's recommendations, he said.
As of last October, 67 local and state law enforcement agencies in 23 states had signed agreements to participate in the 287(g) program, and more are on a waiting list. The program carries the name of the section of immigration law where it is described. Participating officers get four to five weeks of training.
The 13-year-old program has had one participant through 2002, but grew rapidly in 2007 and 2008, after Congress failed to pass immigration reform bills.
The program's most notorious participant is Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz. His county partnered with ICE in February 2007 and has trained at least 160 officers to enforce immigration laws.
Last week, four members of Congress asked the Justice Department to investigate Arpaio for possible civil rights violations after he marched immigration detainees to a jail before the media.