By Bill Ong Hing, New America Media 

ice-raid.jpgDepartment of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's announcement earlier this month that the 287(g) agreement program would be expanded sent shock waves through the immigrant rights community. The program formalizes partnerships between the federal government and local law enforcement officials under which local police are authorized to enforce federal immigration laws. Immigrant groups are upset because during the Bush administration, local police, operating under the auspices of 287(g) agreements, committed heinous due process abuses and wreaked havoc in immigrant communities. The best-known example is Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix who is infamous for loving to abuse and humiliate his immigrant arrestees.

The expansion of the 287(g) program is also disappointing to many of us who served on the United Food and Commercial Workers National Commission on ICE Misconduct and Violations of 4th Amendment Rights. The commission was created in response to a raid in 2006 of six meatpacking plants in America's heartland. More than 12,000 workers, most of them U.S. citizens and legal residents, were herded together at gunpoint and denied access to phones, bathrooms, families and legal counsel. The UFCW represented workers at five of the plants in Minnesota, Colorado, Texas, Iowa, and Nebraska. In its report last month, in addition to calling for a halt to ICE raids, the commission recommended that DHS cease entering into any new 287(g) agreements until the program is fully evaluated. It also said that agreements with certain agencies that have resulted in serious complaints (such as the agreement with Arpaio) should be suspended. Instead, this month, ICE announced 11 new 287(g) agreements with law enforcement agencies from around the country.

One particular 287(g) victim that the commission interviewed stands out. High school senior Justeen Mancha, who was born in the United States, was in her bathroom getting ready for school about 7:30 a.m. Her mother already had left for the morning, driving Justeen's younger brother to elementary school along the way to work. As Justeen was brushing her hair, she heard a frightening crash at the front door of the house. It turns out it was ICE agents storming into her home, without a warrant or probable cause of any crime or immigration violation. Apparently, they only had some vague sense that Mexicans were living at this house. As she stepped out of the bathroom, Justeen faced seven armed agents with weapons drawn pointed at her, screaming, "Turn around and place your hands on the wall!" They shouted that they were searching for "Mexicans--illegals!" Justeen was shocked and traumatized. When she was able to speak, Justeen, who speaks with a heavy southern drawl belying her Georgia roots, explained that she did not know any "illegal" Mexicans. Indeed everyone in her family is a U.S. citizen. Yet, ICE agents held Justeen in her home for hours.

The commission also heard from Stephen Fotopulos, policy director with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. He told us about a series of trailer park raids in Murray County, Tenn. Fotopulos explained that the Murray County Sheriff, under the pretext of executing a criminal warrant, conducted a series of five raids and detained more than 40 people, including U.S. citizens. "The sheriff," he testified, "entered homes in Latino communities without even reasonable suspicion that the residents were unlawfully present in the United States, and definitely not in the course of the officers' normal duties."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano's justification for expanding 287(g), without accounting for the ugliness of previous abuse, is public safety. She stated, "This new agreement supports local efforts to protect public safety by giving law enforcement the tools to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens." DHS claims that ICE will more closely monitor and supervise the way local police agencies implement their authority to enforce immigration laws. But civil rights organizations do not believe that those assurances are sufficient to prevent a new Arpaio from emerging. In the past, using the pretext of 287(g) agreements to look for so-called "criminal aliens," local police have harassed innocent victims in their homes and neighborhoods. In the end those officials admit 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 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. Time and again, at UFCW commission hearings, we heard that this collaboration actually hinders local law enforcement's ability to serve and protect immigrant communities. These communities become fearful of sharing information about real crimes with local officials who are now viewed as anti-immigrant. That's not a step forward.

Bill Ong Hing is a UC Davis law professor. He sat on the UFCW Commission on ICE Misconduct and Violations of 4th Amendment Rights, where he heard firsthand about problems with the 287(g) program.

Copyright © New America Media