While some cities and counties across America have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants in response to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, others have been quietly rolling out the red carpet for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
One way to do that is to formally partner with ICE through what’s called the 287(g) program, which refers to a section of the 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act that allows local police to undergo ICE training so that they can carry out federal immigration enforcement activities. There are now 78 law enforcement offices across 20 states that have formally partnered with ICE through the program, up from just 31 in March 2017.
Today, the largest cluster of sheriff’s departments participating in the 287(g) program is a band of 15 contiguous counties between Houston and the southern border with Mexico. Texas overall accounts for a third of the 278(g) partnerships, up from only four when President Donald Trump took office.
“We stand for the law. That’s what we do.”
One of those is Jackson County, southwest of Houston, which voted 80 percent for Trump in the 2016 election. For Sheriff Andy Louderback, who signed on to 287(g) six days after Trump’s inauguration, getting involved with the program was a no-brainer.
“We think there’s a clear nexus between criminality and illegal aliens,” said Louderback in an interview with VICE News. “It hasn’t been about politics. It’s been the law and we’ve maintained the law. We stand for the law. That’s what we do.”
Follow the money
But for some departments, it’s also a source of revenue. Departments participating in the 287(g) program are given the option to enter what’s called an “Intergovernmental Service Agreement,” which reimburses local departments with federal dollars for detaining or transporting individuals suspected of being in the country illegally.
According to ICE’s budget overview for fiscal year 2018, the daily cost of housing an individual through one of those agreements is around $98, which would be reimbursed to local law enforcement agencies. In rural counties where the general jail population can cost around $50 a day per inmate, those agreements with ICE could be a potential source of revenue.
Departments participating with ICE also get access to the federal Homeland Security database, which has data on non-citizens. “Geographically, I’m on the corridor for Mexico, below Houston,” Louderback said. “It’s the number-one human trafficking corridor in the U.S. We do not get access to information on any immigration violations unless we’re a federal partner.”
The Trump administration sees cooperation with rural sheriffs as essential to carrying out immigration policy. “The partnerships with local law enforcement are invaluable force multipliers for ICE,” said Sarah Rodriguez, ICE’s deputy press secretary, in an email to VICE News.
And at the National Sheriff’s Association conference in February, the nation’s top law enforcement official made it a hard sell. “Removing criminal aliens from our communities makes us safer,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “And I want you to consider joining the very effective 287(g) program.”
The 287(g) program was started during the Bush administration in 2003, and led to more than 175,000 deportations between 2006 and 2013, according to The Marshall Project. Obama ended the program amid allegations it led to racial profiling and federal lawsuits, including in Maricopa County, Arizona, under then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
But President Trump restarted the program as part of his executive order on immigration, issued days after he took office, and it has become much more popular over the past year as elected sheriffs look to embrace Trump’s immigration agenda, and possibly bring in new revenue.
All 78 agencies participating in 287(g) are on a “jail enforcement agreement,” meaning they can screen an individual for their immigration status when they are arrested for a crime, or even a traffic violation, and then either hold that individual until ICE can collect them, or transport them to an ICE facility.
Local immigration politics
Doing ICE work in a criminal justice context helps participating agencies’ arguments that they’re only focusing on undocumented immigrants who are committing crimes, says Dan Stageman, director of research operations at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert in the political economy of immigration detention.
“These sheriff’s offices want to be able to trumpet publicly they are participating in 287(g) and they’re doing this in order to remove immigrant criminals from the street,” Stageman says.
“They’ve switched that individual arrestee over from a cost to a profit”
Beyond wanting to seem like they’re getting tough on crime, the potential of turning a profit is also an incentive for sheriff’s departments.
“When a local law enforcement agency picks up an immigrant through the 287(g) program, and transfers them over to ICE, they’ve switched that individual arrestee over from a cost to a profit,” said Stageman. “If there’s a significant undocumented population, it could be a very lucrative proposition.”
The possibility of turning a profit has provided an incentive for cash-strapped departments to sign on to 287(g). And while this isn’t a new option, ICE has been promoting these agreements more aggressively than in the past. But experts caution that participating agencies may quickly realize there are hidden costs associated with doing ICE’s work for them.
“While many times 287(g) agreements are touted as being a source of easy revenue for the county sheriff’s office, frequently that is not the case, and they end up paying more than they bring in,” said César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández, an associate professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
For example, ICE reimburses local sheriff’s departments for the cost of detaining an individual on their behalf, but it doesn’t cover the cost of personnel needed to maintain that individual, communicate with ICE, and coordinate transfers.
"It takes up a lot of resources”
Officials in both Bee County and Brazoria County, which are adjacent to the contiguous cluster of 287(g) counties in Texas, told VICE News that they simply can’t afford to lose staff to a month long training course at this point. “It takes up a lot of resources,” said Brazoria County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jeff Adkins. “Currently we don’t have the manpower.”
In Harris County, Texas, which encompasses Houston and is the state’s most populous jurisdiction, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez ran on promises to end the 287(g) program and stayed true to his word when he took office in January 2017.
Gonzalez justified his decision mostly in practical terms. “It’s an expensive program,” said Jason Spencer, public information officer for Harris County Sheriff’s Office. “It requires taking about 10 of our employees and tasking them with the job that ICE should be doing.”
Opting out of the program, Gonzalez explained in a statement at the time, meant freeing up nearly $700,000 to be used “to address public safety issues.”
But there was another issue at stake for Gonzalez. Like many other Democratic sheriffs, Gonzalez feared that cooperating closely with ICE would harm community trust, and have a chilling effect on crime reporting. “He wants it to be clear to Harris County residents that our priority is investigating criminal activity,” said Spencer. “He didn’t want anyone to feel apprehensive about cooperating with law enforcement for fear of deportation, including victims of crimes or witnesses to crimes.”
When it comes to deciding whether to sign on to 287(g) or not, sheriffs or local officials often frame the choice in practical terms: It’s necessary for public safety, or, it’s a drain on resources. But the bottom line, Stageman believes, is politics.
“Ideology is always going to be the driving source of motivation to participate in a program like this,” he said. “Sheriffs are elected officials. When it comes to 287(g) participation, if they can publicize it and campaign on it, it’s gonna be a winner for a lot of rural sheriffs around the country.”
Cover image: Sheriff's officer puts handcuffs on a suspected illegal immigrant caught with marijuana during a traffic stop in south Texas. (Photo by Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)