Immigration Enforcement: Whose Job Is it Anyway?

book coverRoughly one-quarter of the 44 million immigrants residing in the United States lack legal status, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 estimations. Between 2001 and 2016, about five million immigrants were collectively deported by the Bush and Obama administrations. Professor Monica Varsanyi’s (GC, Earth and Environmental Sciences/John Jay, Political Science) 2016 book, Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines, co-authored with Doris Marie Provine, Paul G. Lewis, and Scott H. Decker, examines the new “patchwork of local immigration policing” partially responsible for these soaring deportation statistics.
 
Until the mid-1990s, immigration enforcement was handled primarily by the federal government and concentrated in border areas. Then, in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act made immigrants subject to deportation if they committed minor offenses and authorized state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. “The federal government started reaching out to cities and counties everywhere and saying, ‘Can you join us as force multipliers in this business?’” Varsanyi explains. “But local law enforcement didn’t know if it was a good or a bad idea.”
 
To understand which localities were signing on and why, Varsanyi and her collaborators conducted three national surveys of local law enforcement executives as well as case studies of seven cities. Cities with large immigrant populations or recent surges in immigration exhibited a low interest in immigration enforcement, largely because it diluted resources and threatened community policing, a social justice‒oriented model of policing that emphasizes partnerships and problem solving. “More immigration actually equals less enforcement,” Varsanyi says. “Police know the public safety mandate is really challenged if they don’t have cooperation from immigrant communities.”
 
The areas that responded positively to immigration enforcement tended to skew rural and Republican. “More sheriffs were interested in immigration enforcement because sheriffs are elected officials, which means they have to reflect their constituency,” Varsanyi says. “Some places were really gung-ho about it.”
 
Despite the inconsistent reception, legislation transferring enforcement power to local entities continued to pass. The Secure Communities program — established in 2008, discontinued in 2014, and restarted in 2017 — strengthened the relationship between local, state, and federal agencies, allowing local jails to submit arrestees’ fingerprints to immigration databases and notify ICE if a “hit” emerges. Those immigrants could then be deported, even if they hadn’t been found guilty of a crime. “Not all police officers are aware of the program’s scope, which means they sometimes unwittingly pull people into the deportation process,” Varsanyi says. “On the other hand, Secure Communities gave a lot of leeway to cops who knew full well what would happen.”
 
But discretion cannot be left up to individual officers, Varsanyi argues, for what often follows is racially biased policing and broken trust. “Community policing needs to remain an important part of the law enforcement toolbox,” she maintains. Amidst virulent immigration debates, Policing Immigrants advocates serious reforms to a system that “create[s] a space where democratic controls do not and cannot exist.”

Submitted on: MAY 27, 2018

Category: Earth and Environmental Sciences | Faculty | General GC News | International Migration Studies