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Immigrant focus of police is questioned

February 26, 2009|Anna Gorman

A federal program that empowers local police to enforce U.S. immigration laws has failed in its promise to target illegal immigrants who pose a threat to public safety or national security, according to a study released today.

Instead of focusing on serious criminals, local law enforcement officers are arresting "day laborers, street vendors, people who are driving around with broken taillights," said Judith Greene, coauthor of the study by Justice Strategies, a New York-based nonprofit research organization focusing on humane and cost- effective approaches to criminal justice and immigration law enforcement.

At the same time, the costly enforcement program is diverting resources from local police and sheriff departments, the authors wrote. Many of the agreements are in cities where the crime rates are lower than the national average but had Latino population growth higher than the national average, they said.

There were more than 65 agreements between federal immigration officials and local law enforcement agencies across the nation and more than 950 officers had been trained by federal authorities as of late 2008, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

On the agency's website, the program is described as "one of the agency's most successful and popular partnership initiatives as more state and local leaders have come to understand how a shared approach to immigration enforcement can benefit their communities."

Locally, immigration authorities have partnerships with the Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino sheriff's departments. According to the immigration agency, the program -- known as 287(g) -- is credited with identifying more than 79,000 suspected illegal immigrants between January 2006 and late 2008. The majority of those have been screened at jails.

The best-known local-federal partnership is in Maricopa County, Ariz., where Sheriff Joe Arpaio has attracted headlines for his immigration enforcement tactics that have included marching illegal immigrant inmates in shackles from a local jail to a tent city. Lawmakers have called upon the U.S. attorney general to investigate the actions of Arpaio.

"Joe Arpaio has a media circus going on around him," said Aarti Shahani, coauthor of the study. "But there are mini-Joe Arpaios all over the place."

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has called for a review of the program.

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anna.gorman@latimes.com

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