Connecting state and local government leaders
The 287(g) program has significantly expanded since 2017, stoking controversy about cost and transparency. Now, sheriffs have to decide if they want to renew their agreements with ICE.
Part of President Trump’s promise to crack down on undocumented immigration has come in the form of an expanded partnership between local sheriffs’ offices and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sheriffs can designate some of their staff to be trained by the federal agency to identify and process undocumented immigrants with criminal charges, as well as receive help from their local ICE field office.
Most of the 81 municipalities who have signed what are called 287(g) agreements with ICE to cement those relationships will face a decision soon on whether to continue with the program. On June 30th, their agreements will expire, unless the jurisdictions choose to renew.
Though 287(g) agreements have been around since the 1990s as a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security before ICE was formed in 2003, a 2017 executive order by President Trump encouraging greater participation nearly doubled the number of counties involved. Arrests under the 287(g) program rose from fewer than 300 per month during the last few months of President Obama’s tenure to more than 945 each month by January of 2018.
That rapid expansion has caused numerous problems, as an Inspector General’s report found that ICE did not have enough managers to oversee the training and administration of the program once it grew. ICE also doesn’t pay for the programs, leaving some counties to foot bills for overtime and additional investigations that have measured in the millions.
But some local law enforcement officials say they have found the program useful, and have staunchly defended it against critics who claim that it is too costly, discriminatory, or opaque.
“It’s been a very effective program, as criminals aren’t released back on the street,” said Charles Jenkins, the sheriff of Frederick County, Maryland, which has the oldest 287(g) agreement in the state, signed in 2008. “The entire 287(g) program operates within the confines of our jail. It’s a standard procedure where we ask a series of questions, including what country you are a citizen of. If it’s anything other than the U.S.A., we run you through the ICE database.”
Jenkins stressed that the process is “unintrusive and nondiscriminatory” because everyone gets asked the same questions when they arrive at the jail. For that reason, Jenkins said that he fully expects the county to renew its 287(g) agreement after its current one-year extension expires.
Jenkins faced a tough reelection campaign in 2018 in Frederick County, Maryland, winning by only 5.5% of the vote, compared to 25% in 2014 when he faced the same opponent. Some said the smaller margin of victory was due to Jenkins enthusiastic participation in the 287(g) program, which once earned him the Fox News label of America’s second toughest sheriff on crime, after Joe Arpaio from Arizona.
He isn’t the only sheriff whose election campaign has included promises to continue or rescind a county’s agreement with ICE. In counties across the country, tensions are rising between local advocacy groups and law enforcement.
Nick Steiner and Sergio España, of the ACLU of Maryland, have worked on a campaign to get rid of the 287(g) program in Frederick County for several years. “This program is breaking up families,” España said. “We’re just trying to make Maryland more welcoming to immigrants, and the 287(g) program is a significant barrier to that,” Steiner added.
A major part of the group’s fight has been trying to increase transparency. Under their agreement with ICE, sheriffs are supposed to hold public steering meetings once a year to discuss the management of and statistics on their program. Frederick was supposed to hold a meeting in June, but Jenkins cancelled it citing “continued disrespect” from residents at the 2018 meeting. Steiner said that is unacceptable.
“The only time residents have an opportunity to express dissent was shut down. No one in the county can disagree with where their tax dollars are going now,” Steiner said. “That’s not how a public official should act, especially one with so much power.”
Instead, Steiner said that local residents held their own forum this month, where nearly 100 people discussed their concerns. Chief among them has been data that Steiner and España said calls into question Jenkin’s assertion that the program doesn’t discriminate. They cited a 2017 study by Michael Coon, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Tampa, which found that Latino people in Frederick were arrested at a higher rate than they would have been without the agreement.
“What we suspect is that a lot of these arrests for low-level traffic offenses that you wouldn’t find without pulling the person over, like driving with a suspended license, are enforced in a racially biased way so that they can be brought into the jail and asked these questions,” Steiner said.
Jenkins has repeatedly defended against claims that the program is biased, and said that deputies do not racially profile or ask about immigration status outside the jail. At the 2018 steering committee meeting, he said that he did not “believe for one minute that there’s any law enforcement officer in this county that’s out on the street, asking any questions about immigration status.”
Steiner and España said that three years of anecdotes from Latino residents in Frederick contradict that.
Frederick County isn’t alone in using the program in Maryland, with other, typically more conservative, counties also signing on. Harford County adopted the program in 2017, and Cecil County followed this year. España said he is particularly worried about Cecil, because Interstate 95 cuts through the county. “You’re talking about thousands of people who might stop for a cup of coffee or for gas each day, and now they could be racially profiled.”
Before implementing his program, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler visited Sheriff Jenkins in Frederick, where he said he got to see how the program works firsthand. “It’s a very simple program,” he said. “People say it targets those who are trying to make a better life for themselves in this country, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I don’t want people to make a better life for themselves here if they’ve proven they won’t follow our rules.”
Of the 4,810 people book into the Harford County Detention Center in 2018, 161 of them were born outside the U.S., and 38 were turned over to ICE. The majority of initial arrests were for driving while intoxicated, Gahler said.
Claudia Flores, a researcher who studies the 287(g) program at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said that Maryland is an interesting case study for the rest of the country. “I suspect that a lot of folks are now using these programs more for political motives than public safety,” she said. “The impact of the program isn’t clear, but you see them arise in a lot of places where there is already animosity towards immigrants.”
Flores said that as 287(g) agreements have become more widespread, so has activism to stop them. Anne Arundel County, Maryland, ended its 287(g) agreement in 2018, when a newly elected Democratic county executive fulfilled his campaign promise to terminate the program. “We’re seeing a rebuke of these programs as a broader criticism of Trump’s immigration policy,” said Flores.
The fight in Anne Arundel inspired some of the organizers in the country’s latest 287(g) battle, in Tarrant County, Texas, which includes Fort Worth. Juana Guzman-Mata, a community organizer with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said that many people who have been turned over to ICE by the sheriff’s office didn’t have the chance to prove their innocence in court. “People now know that ICE is in the Tarrant County Jail all the time,” she said.
But David McClelland, the chief of staff for the Tarrant Sheriff's office, said that keeping ICE-trained deputies in the jail is precisely the point of the program. “287(g) gives the department 24/7 coverage, because now we have people who have been trained by ICE on all three shifts,” he said.
At a Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday to determine if the program would be continued, Sheriff Bill Waybourn called accusations of racism in the program “far-fetched.” The commissioners voted to renew the program.
Guzman-Mata said that even if the program had ended, it wouldn’t have been enough to end the community’s fear of the police. “Even without 287(g), people won’t believe that they’re going to stop cooperating with ICE. This would have been the first step in repairing damage done to the community, but it will take a lot more to get people to a place where they feel safe in their own neighborhoods.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.