A town hall meeting on a controversial new partnership between Las Vegas police and federal immigration officials drew a bitterly divided crowd Thursday evening.
On one side of the commission chambers at the Clark County Government Center sat civil rights leaders and those who came to express fears that the partnership -- which facilitates enforcement of immigration laws on those who've been arrested -- could lead to racial profiling and make people afraid to report crimes.
On the other side sat those who favor tougher enforcement of immigration laws. They repeatedly interrupted the meeting, especially when a translator spoke in Spanish.
"I don't understand what you are saying!" one woman yelled.
"This is America; speak English!" others yelled.
Organizers repeatedly reminded the crowd of about 150 to be respectful, threatening to throw out those who continued to interrupt.
"There are few issues in America that are as emotional as the issue of immigration," said Launce Rake of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.
PLAN, together with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada and Democracia Ahora hosted the event to discuss the controversial 287(g) agreement the Metropolitan Police Department and the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement entered into last year.
The pact, which was the first of its kind in Nevada, allows specially trained officers at the Clark County Detention Center to identify immigration violators and start deportation proceedings against them.
The partnership's name is taken from a section of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act. But organizers and guests were able to discuss few specifics of the 287(g) partnership during the meeting, which was interrupted by angry protests.
In the middle of it all were three Las Vegas police officers who had come to explain, and perhaps defend, the 287(g) partnership.
Capt. John Donahue was repeatedly interrupted as he tried to explain that the partnership was meant to target violent criminals and wouldn't extend beyond the walls of the detention center.
"Why are we permitting this anarchy to exist?" called out Daniel Neal Sr., who identified himself as a member of "Victorious Living for Conservatives."
"Why does Metro pick and choose which laws they enforce?" another man said.
Lost was any nuanced discussion of issues surrounding the 287(g) program.
Nationally, dozens of local and state police groups have immigration partnerships with ICE. Civil rights leaders across the country have attacked the program as targeting Hispanics and causing fear in immigrant communities.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano recently announced plans to expand the 287(g) program.
Federal officials also drew up a new agreement, which participating law enforcement agencies have been asked to sign, intended to clarify that the program's priority is to deport immigrants who are criminal fugitives or are already behind bars.
Locally, police have attempted to quell fears in the immigrant community by explaining that the program's purpose is to target violent criminals. But they and immigration officials have acknowledged that any illegal immigrants booked into the jail, regardless of the severity of charges against them and whether they're found innocent of those charges, could be subject to deportation.
Some law enforcement entities, including the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Phoenix, have adopted broader versions of the 287(g) agreement, which allow them to form task forces to target illegal immigrants.
Advocates for tougher enforcement of immigration laws on Thursday questioned why the Las Vegas police hadn't followed suit.
"Why doesn't Metro round up and arrest illegals on the street?" a man asked.
The heated nature of the meeting led Judy Cox, an attorney with the ACLU, to express her shock "at the amount of animosity toward our neighbors."
"The last time I checked, hate was not an American value."
Josephine Salinas and her friends came to the meeting to learn more about the 287(g) program, which they worry could unfairly target Latinos.
They weren't able to get much information at Thursday's town hall. The atmosphere was so tense it scared the 43-year-old Salinas. "My heart was beating hard."
Contact reporter Lynnette Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0285.