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Obama Admin Expands Law Enforcement Program 287(g), Criticized for Targeting Immigrants and Increasing Racial Profiling

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The Obama administration has expanded the controversial 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to enter into agreements with Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, effectively giving local police the powers of federal immigration agents. The agreements have been widely criticized for increasing racial profiling and singling out immigrants for arrest without suspicion of crime. We speak to Aarti Shahani of Justice Strategies and Roberto Lovato of New America Media. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with a look at immigration enforcement under the Obama administration. Earlier this month, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the expansion of the controversial 287(g) program to eleven new locations across the country. This program allows local law enforcement agencies to enter into agreements with Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. It effectively gives local police the powers of federal immigration agents.

287(g) agreements have been widely criticized for increasing racial profiling and singling out immigrants for arrest without suspicion of crime. In Napolitano’s home state of Arizona, particularly under Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the 287(g) program is plagued with serious reports of abuse.

The Obama administration has also decided to expand and strengthen implementation of other controversial programs like E-Verify and Secure Communities. E-Verify is an electronic system that checks people’s eligibility to work, and Secure Communities brings ICE agents into local jails to identify and deport undocumented prisoners.

Well, here in New York, a coalition of immigration activists are gathering outside the Council on Foreign Relations today at the time of this broadcast, where Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is giving a speech about terrorism. The activists are protesting Napolitano’s expansion of immigration enforcement programs and calling for an end to abuses by ICE.

For more on this, we’re joined by two guests in the firehouse studio.

Aarti Shahani is the lead author of “Local Democracy on ICE,” a report on the 287(g) program by the nonpartisan criminal justice institute Justice Strategies. She is also co-founder of Families for Freedom.

Roberto Lovato is contributing associate editor with New America Media and a frequent contributor to The Nation and the Huffington Post. He was previously the executive director of the Central American Resource Center, CARECEN, then the country’s largest immigrant rights organization. He blogs at ofamerica.wordpress.com.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: OK, let’s begin with you, Aarti Shahani. 287(g), can you explain more fully what this means?

AARTI SHAHANI: Absolutely. The 287(g) program is essentially the program that turns traffic cops and jail guards into deportation agents. 287(g) refers to a piece of law passed in 1996 under then-President Bill Clinton but turned into an all-out program to recruit law enforcement into the deportation agenda under the Bush administration.

Our understanding, those of us who were watching Obama and had hopes in Obama, was that, under Obama, programs like 287(g) would be terminated, because they are driven off of a desire for racial profiling. Officers that want to be able to have the power to pick up Latinos, brown people, while driving, these are the self-selecting group of people that joined to 287(g). And unfortunately, two weeks ago, Napolitano gave us our first really blatant betrayal when she decided not only not to suspend 287(g), but to expand it around the country.

Notably, she gave this program — she reinitiated the contract with Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. Mind you, Joe Arpaio is currently under federal investigation. The Department of Justice, Eric Holder is investigating his use of the program. Meanwhile, Napolitano is going ahead and handing it off to him.

Among the other participants that were recruited newly into the program — Arpaio is an old participant in it — a new recruit is, for example, Morristown, New Jersey, where the chief of police himself had no idea his own agency was being recruited into 287(g). Last night, Morristown had a community meeting of 150 community members, where people — for example, a woman said, “Listen, imagine if you’re a victim of domestic violence. If we have this program in Morristown, New Jersey, how can you call the police? Because the police will come, they will deport your husband, even if you don’t want that, and they could even deport you.” This was a fear.

There was another anecdote last night about a guy in Morristown, actually a white guy who loves bachata music. He was saying that “I was driving in my convertible the other day, top down, listening to my bachata. The police stopped me.” They don’t even have 287(g) yet. “The police stopped me and said in Spanish, ‘Give me your driver’s license.’ And they spoke worse Spanish than me, and I responded in Spanish, as a white guy, ‘I don’t even’ — you know, I gave them the driver’s license, responded in Spanish, and it was so clear that they assumed that I was Latino, because I don’t have blue eyes, because I’m Italian American.” And so, you can see that the places where this program is really coming up are places that want to do racial profiling.

And Napolitano’s decision to go ahead and expand the program, I think, needs to be taken, as those — by those who are watching, as a real misstep. You know, there is right now, for example, even within the Democratic Party, people were pissed at her, in large part because Democrats that have been campaigning for a comprehensive immigration reform want to be able to trade off enforcement for legalization. And so, within the Democratic Party, there was some criticism that, strategically, Napolitano is just handing off enforcement through things like 287(g) and E-Verify, rather than letting them being able to trade it off for legalization down the line. So there’s — on a lot of fronts, she’s disappointed a lot of people.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it work in Maricopa, in Arizona?

AARTI SHAHANI: So, I mean, how it works is a great question, and it really seems to work different ways in different places. The fundamental thing about 287(g) is ICE is marketing it as a program that targets criminal illegal aliens, the worst of the worst. But there’s a baseline fact, which is that police already have the power to arrest people for crimes; that power rests in criminal law. And so, 287(g) comes in precisely when you lack reasonable suspicion of a crime, when you lack evidence, and when you’re trying to hold someone on a civil immigration detainer, because under a civil immigration detainer you don’t have the same constitutional protections as a regular criminal arrest.

So 287(g) basically opens the gateway for sloppy policing. That’s why law enforcement officers like Joe Arpaio — I mean, Joe Arpaio has told me, you know, “287(g) takes the handcuffs off of law enforcement. That’s why we want it.”

The way that it’s worked in Maricopa County is through these, quote-unquote, “crime suppression sweeps,” where really what you have is the sheriff’s deputies and then a volunteer force that includes people that are white nationalists going around the city or going around the county, going into different areas in Mesa and rounding people up. That’s how it’s been working over there.

AMY GOODMAN: This is what, well, at the time, Governor Napolitano presided over? Is it fair to say that? “Presided over”?

AARTI SHAHANI: Napolitano presided — Napolitano actually brokered the first 287(g) program in Arizona and then helped Arpaio to get his.

Now, one real — one way that she’s really speaking out of both sides of her mouth over here is that she is saying that “My administration, Homeland Security under me, is going to clean up the detention system.” We’ve had upwards of a hundred deaths in civil immigration detention. It’s a totally mismanaged system that’s grown from 5,000 in 1994 to over 40,000 today. And she has actually brought in a corrections guru, Dora Schriro, who knows all about managing corrections, to come and clean up the system. So she’s saying, “We’re going to get basic standards in detention. We’re going to manage it properly.” So, that’s one side of her mouth.

On the other side is expanding this program, which is basically a backdoor way to add, you know, anywhere between 2,000 and 10,000 new beds in detention, without calling it that. The fact is, Joe Arpaio isn’t just running a program that picks Latinos off of the streets for being Latino; he’s then throwing these same people into Tent City, a jail that’s not even accredited anymore federally, because its standards are so poor, and holding them there de facto as immigration civil detainees.

So it makes no sense that, on the one hand, Napolitano says we’re going to clean up detention, and, on the other hand, through 287(g), she continues to rely on Joe’s beds.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break and come back to this discussion. Aarti Shahani is the lead author in “Local Democracy on ICE,” a report on the 287(g) program by the nonpartisan criminal justice institute. And we’ll be joined by Roberto Lovato. As we speak, a protest is going on outside the Council on Foreign Relations, where Janet Napolitano is speaking about terrorism. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about immigration policy in this country. Janet Napolitano, former governor of Arizona, now secretary of Homeland Security, is in New York to address the Council on Foreign Relations; a major protest is going on outside.

Our guests are Aarti Shahani, lead author of “Local Democracy on ICE,” and Roberto Lovato, contributing associate editor with New America Media.

I wanted to turn for a moment to President Obama. President Obama spoke last month about his plans for immigration reform. This is a brief excerpt of what he had to say. Then I’ll get your responses.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think the consensus is that despite the — our inability to get this passed over the last several years, the American people still want to see a solution, in which we are tightening up our borders or cracking down on employers who are using illegal workers in order to drive down wages, and oftentimes mistreat those workers. And we need a effective way to recognize and legalize the status of undocumented workers who are here.

    My administration is fully behind an effort to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. I have asked my secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Secretary Janet Napolitano, to lead up a group that is going to be working with a leadership group from both the House and the Senate to start systematically working through these issues. From the congressional leaders and those with the relevant jurisdiction, what we’ve heard is, through a process of regular order, they would like to work through these issues both in the House and in the Senate.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Lovato, why don’t we begin with you? Your response to President Obama?

ROBERTO LOVATO: Well, I think we all applaud some form of a reform. And what is proven to be the most decrepit, ill-managed and rotten system, when you talk about the hundred deaths that Aarti mentioned and all the people that aren’t being fed or that are being fed baloney that’s rotten and just really nasty things —-

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “fed baloney that’s rotten,” you’re talking about Joseph Arpaio, the -—

ROBERTO LOVATO: Joe Arpaio’s jail, feeding people baloney, putting — dressing them in pink. I mean, so there’s a whole system of humiliation, death and disgrace upon the Obama administration that’s not really talked about.

When you have these big meetings with senators or when President Obama goes before, say, the NAACP, as he did on July 15th, or when he’s going to have his couple of beers with Henry Louis Gates and the policeman, you know, in those meetings, we hear a lot about civil rights and about how far we’ve come and how far we need to go. And we even have mention of racial profiling. But then it’s taken back. What’s not taken back is the fact that 287(g), that Aarti described, is one of the most massive racial profiling programs of the federal government in history.

And the announcement of this, Amy, is really interesting. The 287(g) expansion, we were — a lot of people were just expecting it was going to be closed down — that’s why they’re protesting at the Council on Foreign Relations here in New York right now — thought that, you know, with Obama there was a new day in race and racial profiling and 287(g) and Joe Arpaio are done. In fact, they’re expanding that program. And as a result, they’re expanding a program that has been proven to profile, prosecute, persecute and jail and terrorize a lot of people.

It’s funny that Janet Napolitano is talking about terrorism. I’ve been around the country interviewing undocumented immigrants pretty much everywhere, except a few states in the Northeast, and I’ve seen people’s hands shake like they did when I was in El Salvador, or their faces twitch. That’s terror. That’s post-traumatic stress disorder that’s caused by that. So, a lot of activists, I think, are finding a hypocrisy on a historic scale made by a historic new presidency, in terms of them talking about preventing terrorism or being against racial profiling, when, in fact, the 287(g) program and other programs like it foster new and extreme levels of terrorism and racial profiling. So it’s just — there’s a lot of people that aren’t very happy with the Obama administration.

And there’s — and you see the split that Aarti mentioned. There are groups that are more sympathetic and close to the Democrats in Washington, DC, and those groups are very good about talking about legalization. National Council of La Raza, National Immigration Forum and others are more than happy to talk about legalization, and they’ll criticize, on the side, detention. But they won’t make reform of the detention system, abolishing the most racist program, one of the most racist programs, of the federal government a part of comprehensive immigration reform. So, when you hear and when we hear and when your audience hears the words “comprehensive immigration reform,” that’s code for legalization in exchange for even more programs like 287(g), more laws that are going to prosecute, persecute, jail, and probably end up killing more immigrants. And so, comprehensive immigration reform, everybody, is code for more enforcement in exchange for legalization.

AMY GOODMAN: Aarti Shahani?

AARTI SHAHANI: I echo what Roberto says, and I think that there’s another point to keep in mind about programs like 287(g). Right now, there is space to reconsider what is going to happen with our immigration system. Under Bush, we were set back. Immigration, for the first time in history, became institutionalized as a homeland security issue. Back in 2002, 2003, there were people who were saying immigration does not belong in Homeland Security. It is not a counterterrorism issue. If anything, it’s a labor issue, it’s an international relations issue; put it in the State Department, so on and so forth. So, right now, given that we’re not touching comprehensive immigration reform until healthcare, which could be four months or four years — who knows, right? — given that we’re not touching it until then, now is the time for the Obama administration and the people who are watching the Obama administration to really flag a few issues.

One is that we need to turn away from the Bush policy of attrition. OK? What Janet Napolitano is calling “partnerships” with local law enforcement agencies — she keeps on talking about this great word of “partnerships” — that’s in fact a war of attrition. When you go ahead and you enlist and deputize, you know, what could be thousands of agencies to start basically being deportation agents, you’re bringing the border to the interior. That’s not policy that makes sense. That is Bush-era policy, and that is bringing a reign of terror into communities that are, at this point, hands trembling, afraid to leave. People have already left Morristown, New Jersey, before 287(g) has even gotten there, because of fear. These are things that we can’t afford to allow to happen.

I think the other thing is that there is a real struggle right now in terms of the controlling this debate. You know, and you had, for example — under the Bush administration, you had the Police Foundation, whose president is Hubert Williams, testifying against programs like 287(g), saying, “This is a terrible idea. Police don’t want to engage in racial profiling.” Now the danger is that because we have a Democratic administration, Democratic leaders are not going to speak out against these same policies. There has been no substantive change in 287(g). In fact, the program may have worsened between Bush and Obama. But suddenly, Democrats are afraid to call out Democrats on this. This is something that we have to keep very aware of, because it’s now harder to be indignant about the same injustices that are happening.

AMY GOODMAN: Aarti Shahani, in addition to your report, “Democracy on ICE,” the Benjamin Cardozo Law School just put out a report on abuses by ICE officers here in this area, in Staten Island, in New Jersey. Can you talk about the significance of their findings?

AARTI SHAHANI: Yes. Cardozo School of Law Immigration Clinic put out a phenomenal report actually called “Constitution on ICE.” It seems like a lot of things are on ICE these days. But “Constitution on ICE” really deals with the abuse of immigration detainers. OK, I mentioned this a little bit earlier. But this report, what it does is document that ICE has been conducting home raids exponentially more and more since about 2002.

For these home raids, ICE issues for itself a warrant to go ahead into somebody’s home when they’re trying to apprehend — apprehend people that they call absconders, fugitive aliens, people with old deportation orders or possibly people with old criminal convictions. OK? ICE goes into homes, and what Cardozo documented, through FOIA requests and through getting information, forcing it out, was that consistently ICE was violating the terms of the warrants that they issue for themselves. They were physically breaking into homes. They were doing collateral arrests. So, “We’re here looking for Juan Diego. Oh, Juan Diego is here? Well, we’ll take him, Ana Diego and Pablo Diego and whoever else happens to be.” There were plenty of Pakistanis among [inaudible] issues, as well. So what Cardozo School of Law did was document what basically people have known anecdotally, which is that ICE is not abiding by the terms of the detainer. They’re going ahead and, you know, rapidly abusing the detainer.

And again, to tie this back to 287(g), you know, if Cardozo School of Law has documented that ICE is abusing detainers, 287(g) gives regular criminal law enforcement the power to also issue and abuse detainers. ICE can’t manage its own detainer system. How is it going to oversee other officers doing it? I don’t know.

AMY GOODMAN: And the way they go into these houses, shotguns…

AARTI SHAHANI: I mean, it’s crazy. You’re talking about, you know, SWAT teams of seven to ten officers, bulletproof vests, shotguns. They recently — or under the Bush administration, they changed up their jackets that used to say “ICE”; now it says “ICE Police.” Technically, ICE isn’t supposed to be police. They’re not criminal law enforcement officials; they’re civil authorities, at least the ones that are going in for these raids.

I mean, you have people, like I know, for example, a family in Brooklyn. They’re members of Families — I’m sorry, in the Bronx, members of Families for Freedom, where an eleven-year-old girl had to basically answer the door as 6:00 a.m. to a team of eight ICE officers busting in, looking for her father — her father was in the shower getting cleaned up for work — taking her father and then taking her uncle, who wasn’t even listed on their warrant. So this is the way that detainers are basically being used and abused, under the Obama administration, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you see this changing at all?

AARTI SHAHANI: It changes if we say it, right? It changes if we talk about it and expose it. There’s a deep concern right now that — there has never been a more important moment, I think, politically, and an opportunity, frankly, to call out what’s happening for the sake of redefining the agenda. The fact is, the Obama administration should stop treating immigration as a counterterrorism project. They should stop this war of attrition, this devolution of immigration authority. They should stop this rapid use of detainers, this expansive use of detainers. It’s probably in violation of the detainer laws.

And mind you, everything I’ve listed is administratively what they can do. Short of comprehensive immigration reform, there is so much that the Obama administration could be doing right now, but it seems like what they could be doing is in direct opposite — is directly opposite to what they are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: And final recommendations from your report, from “Democracy on ICE,” beyond what you’ve just described?

AARTI SHAHANI: I mean, we recommended in “Local Democracy on ICE” that you terminate the 287(g) program entirely, because it does not serve a public safety function. We also recommended that there be — that we create real reporting requirements for ICE to continue to receive funding. We are in a moment of economic crisis. ICE’s budget continues to grow. It’s over $6 billion today, which is larger than the budget of all of Haiti. It’s over $6 billion today. It’s continuing to grow. It’s continuing to get money from appropriations. And while our appropriators in Congress are pumping money into ICE, our Democratic appropriators are pumping money into ICE, they’re not creating any real reporting requirements so we can assess the effectiveness of the agency. So those are some basic recommendations we have.

AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Lovato, comment on that. And then I want to ask you about Honduras, a recent interview you did with a leading labor activist with the ongoing coup there.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Well, you know, Aarti laid out very comprehensively a system that people like scholars at Lewis and Clark University, Juliet Stumpf, call “crimmigration.” It’s basically a system of interlacing laws and enforcement practices that lead to profiling, prosecuting and jailing exponential numbers of Latinos, in much the same way, for example, that drug laws prosecuted, jailed African Americans, Latinos and other poor people in exponential numbers. So there’s a new industry afoot, the kind of migration-industrial complex that’s driven by things like what some call “crimmigration.”

And the Obama administration seems more than willing to entertain it. If a report by Syracuse University is right, that tracks immigration prosecution and detention, it shows that we’re now reaching, quote, “levels seen during the Bush administration,” the highest levels during the Bush administration. And so, if you’re concerned about civil rights, immigrant rights, Latino issues, African American, poor people’s issues, and you’ve been thinking about breaking with Barack Obama, you may want to join people over at the Council on Foreign Relations and other cities around the United States, where now I think the Obama administration, Janet Napolitano and President Obama, are going to be targeted by groups that are fed up with the jailing, prosecuting, racial profiling, terror and death of it all.

AMY GOODMAN: Honduras, very quickly, Roberto Lovato?

ROBERTO LOVATO: I interviewed Bertha Oliva, a preeminent, world-recognized human rights activist, head of the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared. And I was basically interviewing her about Secretary Clinton’s comments last week about the entrance of President Zelaya into Honduras as being, quote, “reckless.”

AMY GOODMAN: The fact that he went to the — the fact that he went to the border in Nicaragua.

ROBERTO LOVATO: Right, yeah. She said that it was “reckless.” And I asked Miss Oliva what she thought. And she thought that Secretary Clinton was being, quote, “reckless.” And she said, “Well, right now, we just had a bombing yesterday. And unfortunately — fortunately, there was nobody killed by the bombing, because everybody from that union that was bombed was over at the funeral of one of the victims, the latest victims, of the death squad killings,” which would give you some sense of the situation that Bertha Oliva believes that Secretary Clinton and President Obama are actually enabling, which is, you know, what are they communicating to people that are bombing unions, killing people, disappearing people, doing things that many of us remember and tremble at the thought of returning right now? And so, when she hears Secretary Clinton saying this, she’s outraged, like many people I’ve spoken to, about the lack of support for democracy, as we hear voiced in the case of Iran.

AMY GOODMAN: And we will certainly continue to follow developments in the coup in Honduras. This is Democracy Now! I want to thank you both for being with us. Roberto Lovato, contributing associate editor at New America Media, previously executive director of CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center. And Aarti Shahani, thank you for being with us, lead author on “Local Democracy on ICE,” a report on 287(g) program by the nonpartisan criminal justice institute Justice Strategies.

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