Immigration enforcement has just shifted further from the federal to the local level. Maryland’s Harford County police department announced last month that it would begin to check the immigration status of all detainees the sheriff’s office apprehends. The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) leads the partnership program that provides the “delegated authority” and training for officers to correctly identify and process undocumented immigrants. The other county in Maryland that is a participant of the program is Frederick County; this is out of the thirty-three local law enforcement agencies participating across the country. In exchange for identifying illegal immigrants, ICE will give money to the local police forces if they follow 287(g) (the name of the program) and properly detain those identified as undocumented. Harford County officials say that this will help increase the safety of the community while also helping federal immigration agencies complete their jobs. It is reported by ICE that Frederick County, which program has been in place since 2008, has detained 1,400 people so far.
Critics of the program cite that due to the threat to check immigration status, immigrants will be less likely to call the police for help, thus endangering the lives of themselves and their community. An increased tension between police and local communities will give rise to further mistrust and potential violence, as has been witnessed across the U.S. the past few years, including in Baltimore with the death of Freddie Gray. Additionally, the claims that detaining illegal immigrants enhances public safety are not well founded. According to the American Immigration Council, which released a report on the criminalization of immigration in the U.S. in 2015, immigrants are more likely than not to avoid crime; the study points out that based on findings from the 2010 American Community Survey, male immigrants had an incarceration rate of 1.6% compared to the 3.3% rate of those who had not immigrated.
This issue is especially fraught after the election of Donald Trump. His commentary on immigration skews towards a dangerous tone of threatened oppression and forced removal. By blustering during his campaign about how a wall (now perhaps a fence) would be built on the U.S.-Mexican border on Mexico’s dime or proposing the deportation of 11 million people, he set a dangerous precedent for how immigration will be handled in this country. He has promised in his post-election appearances to deport around two or three million immigrants and deny funding for “sanctuary cities.” This rhetoric helps fuel programs like the one ICE has established with Harford County in inciting fear in immigrant populations with the threat of deportation.
Across the United States, local law enforcement has reacted to Trump’s proposed agenda. As a point of comparison with Harford County, let us look at Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a city of immigrants, with around 800,000 undocumented immigrants in the city alone and over two million in California, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. The Los Angeles Police Department announced after the election of Trump that it would uphold its commitment to Special Order 40, which prohibits police officers from detaining someone purely in order to ask about their immigration status. Los Angeles Unified School District released a statement, sparked by fear of children being taken away from their friends in the middle of class by federal immigration officials, saying that the presence of ICE agents on campuses would not be tolerated without the school principal’s consent. L.A. does not work with ICE program 287(g). These opposing stances between L.A. and Harford County over immigration highlight the burgeoning rift in American society on how to deal with immigration-- through coercion and fear, or through support and protection.
Instead of threatening a potential sentence of deportation after a night in jail, police officials across the country should be working with immigrant communities. At all points in American history, different nationalities, races, and ethnicities have been persecuted for being immigrants. But it is truly the mélange of cultures and beliefs that define the fabric of our towns and cities. Harford County should rethink its partnership with ICE and work more on strengthening its ties with the local community rather than distancing itself from being at their service.
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