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Commentary: Going rogue in America on police and immigration

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SAN DIEGO -- Did I ever tell you about the time that a police chief who organized an immigration sweep had his alibi unravel?

It was 1997, and I was a reporter at The Arizona Republic in Phoenix. In the suburb of Chandler, hundreds of illegal immigrants and U.S.-born Hispanics were indiscriminately detained and interrogated as to their immigration status by teams of police officers and Border Patrol agents. It was a half-baked idea that wound up costing that city a bundle in civil rights lawsuits and damaged community relations to this day.

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When I got the Chandler police chief on the phone, I asked him where his officers got the jurisdiction to play dress-up as immigration agents. He responded that there was a new federal program allowing local police to enforce immigration law. The chief was talking about the enforcement scheme known as the 287(g) program.

It's named for Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a provision that came into existence because of a failed piece of enforcement-only legislation known as the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. That law, authored by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, promised to end illegal immigration by building fences along the border and deploying more Border Patrol agents. And it did such a bang-up job of accomplishing its goal that here we are, 15 years later, still debating what to do about illegal immigration.

The problem with the chief's explanation was that, as I informed him, the program was at the time so new that the guidelines hadn't even been written yet. The Chandler Roundup was not the result of a formal agreement drawn up in Washington but rather a good ol' boy partnership between the Chandler police chief and the supervisor of the local Border Patrol office. In other words, the Chandler cops had gone rogue. Then the boss tried to cover it up by claiming they were participating in a federal program not yet off the ground.

Now, according to a new report by the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute, it seems a lot of local and state law enforcement agencies are going rogue these days.

The report uncovered that the cooperative program is not working as intended. Under 287(g), only designated officers could participate in the program, and only after they received specialized training by sworn federal immigration agents. Once in the field, those officers would continue to receive supervision by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to make sure they were properly using -- and not abusing -- their new power. All this was to be spelled out in a memorandum of agreement.

This isn't happening.

The program was supposed to operate under the auspices of ICE. However, in practice, local sheriffs and county officials have enormous discretion to decide whom to target and whether to detain only those immigrants who were wanted for specific offenses or to check the status of every immigrant with whom police come into contact. That's a recipe for racial profiling.

Also, ICE is supposed to set the priorities for the program. It decided that the enforcement priority should be arresting and deporting illegal immigrants who had -- in addition to the civil infraction of unlawfully entering the United States -- also committed serious crimes such as robbery, rape and assault. But the local and state law enforcement agencies didn't heed that directive. According to the report, about half of the immigrants who were detained for deportation under the program had committed only minor crimes or traffic violations.

No surprise there. Local and state enforcement officials probably don't care about the big picture of curbing crime by getting rid of criminal aliens. They're just as likely to want to get rid of all illegal immigrants.

Finally, while ICE is supposed to ensure that the 287(g) program is implemented uniformly around the country, the report found that there were many variations in what individual law enforcement agencies did and how they did it.

So basically, it's a free-for-all -- and an ironic one at that. As immigration restrictionists like to remind the rest of us, rules matter. We have a porous border because people don't follow the rules to come into this country legally. Is it too much to ask that law enforcement agencies follow the rules in removing them?

Apparently, it is.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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