Immigration enforcement through jails ripe for abuses

This past week, the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, published a report analyzing the enforcement of federal immigration law by state and local officers, known as 287(g) enforcement because of the section of the Immigration and Nationality Act that grants such authority.

The report found Las Vegas' method of enforcement was the "most targeted" toward serious criminals. In other words, when the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department holds someone for an immigration violation -- until Immigration and Customs Enforcement can take into custody and deport that person -- it is far more likely than in other cities that the person was arrested for a serious crime, or already has a serious crime record.

Compare the statistics and Las Vegas looks pretty good: In Cobb County, Ga., a whopping 67 percent of those held for immigration authorities were originally stopped for a mere traffic offense, or no offense at all. In Las Vegas, only 20 percent of those held were arrested for low-level offenses. The message the report sends, according to Metro and various Nevada media, is that only "serious criminals" are subject to detention and deportation in Las Vegas. Who could have a problem with that?

For one thing, people who are put into deportation proceedings are only "serious criminals" if one assumes, as Metro does, everyone arrested for a serious crime is guilty, or that anyone who once committed such a crime is incapable of rehabilitation and will forever remain a criminal. Under the program, Metro officers act as the judge and jury of anyone arrested for a serious crime, deciding who is guilty, and playing a role that has long been reserved for a jury of one's peers. Cops are not supposed to determine who is guilty of a crime; they are supposed to arrest suspects.

As for immigrants who have been arrested for minor offenses but who have more serious crimes on their records, the Police Department shouldn't be so proud that it's putting them into deportation proceedings, either. Someone arrested for, say, stopping a few inches over the line at a stop sign, but who has a serious offense on his criminal record, does not necessarily represent a threat to our community. Putting people who are suspected of only minor offenses into deportation proceedings because of a serious offense in their past sends the message of "once a criminal, always a criminal." If we allow undocumented immigrants to be thought of as impossible to rehabilitate, it is only a matter of time before everyone who is convicted of a crime is thought of that way.

Aside from being a little cruel, that kind of thinking is a perfect way to isolate ex-convicts, who often want to become productive members of our society. This makes a mockery of President Bush's famous statement "America is the land of the second chance," and makes all of us less safe.

Additionally, we can't even be sure such people actually committed the minor offense for which they are arrested. Someone who is put into a deportation proceeding has zero ability to challenge the original arrest, regardless of whether it was based on insufficient evidence or racial profiling. A 2003 UNLV study found many Metro officers admitted to witnessing racial profiling by their colleagues. Even assuming that currently none of the thousands of police officers in this city ever profiles or is willing to take someone into custody without the necessary level of suspicion, the police have never been able to arrest so many people without a judge reviewing the legality of the arrests. The 287(g) program gives Metro full rein to arrest and send people into deportation proceedings, with no one else to check their motives or evidence.

Finally, Las Vegas' 287(g) program discourages undocumented immigrants from cooperating with local police officers if there is trouble, which has enormous potential to endanger our community. For example, a woman who is having a loud argument with her husband, or who is worried that he is about to drive drunk, might not call the police to defuse the situation if she knows that they could arrest him and have him deported for a more serious crime that he committed long ago. Effective policing -- our safety -- depends on the trust and cooperation of as many members of the community as possible. The 287(g) thumbs its nose at that idea, and at the idea that police don't have the final say as to who threatens our community.

Rahul Sharma is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada. He has not been admitted to practice.