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Federal-Local Cooperation on Immigration Enforcement Frayed; Chance for Improvement Exists
July 2015

Federal-Local Cooperation on Immigration Enforcement Frayed; Chance for Improvement Exists

SecureCommunities CASA Flickr

Long-simmering tensions over federal-local cooperation in immigration enforcement were exposed in the days after the shooting death of a young woman in San Francisco by an unauthorized immigrant who had been deported five times from the United States. How could the city of San Francisco release Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who had seven previous criminal convictions and had been on track for mandatory deportation under federal immigration law until the city claimed him from federal custody for a possible prosecution on local drug charges?

Although critics swiftly claimed inadequate border controls to be the source of the problem, the tragedy perhaps most importantly highlighted the growing gulf over immigration enforcement between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and cities and states across the United States. While DHS has made cooperation with state and local police central to its interior enforcement strategies, San Francisco is one of more than 360 jurisdictions that have passed laws to formally limit their cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS agency responsible for immigration enforcement in the U.S. interior. These jurisdictions are not limited to cities like San Francisco and New York, but also include less traditional immigrant destinations such as Atlanta, Omaha, and Wichita. Altogether, the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that these jurisdictions, often referred to as sanctuary cities, are home to at least 5.9 million unauthorized immigrants—53 percent of the unauthorized population. This level of noncompliance with federal policy is a stark indicator of how badly local-federal cooperation has fractured.

The arguments in favor of local-state-federal cooperation on immigration enforcement are straightforward, particularly after the shooting death of Kate Steinle. Cooperation with local police is a significant force-multiplier for DHS because there are 750,000 police officers in the United States, compared to about 5,000 DHS enforcement and removal officers (excluding border personnel). And cooperation is the surest way to ensure the deportation of serious criminals like Lopez-Sanchez, who typically come into the immigration system through an encounter with the police (though in this particular case San Francisco had custody following a transfer from ICE after Lopez-Sanchez had completed a federal prison sentence for illegal re-entry).  

For these reasons, DHS over the last decade has sought to bring state and local law enforcement into the federal immigration enforcement system. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration added immigration warrants to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), informing local police of certain immigration violations. Beginning in 2006, DHS rapidly expanded the 287(g) program, which formally delegates specific immigration enforcement authorities to specially trained state and local officers. And in 2008, DHS launched Secure Communities, which uses fingerprint data sent to the FBI for criminal background checks by local police departments to automatically check the immigration status of arrestees. The deployment of Secure Communities to every city, county, and state in the country was a watershed: the program identified more than 500,000 noncitizens passing through state and local jails in 2014, and was the starting point for about three-quarters of all interior (i.e., non-border) deportations. Interior removals surged, rising from 75,000 in 2006 to 188,000 in 2011.

Yet aggressive interior enforcement prompted a backlash amid concerns over the devastating impact of deportations on established immigrant communities, strained relations between immigrants and law enforcement, and contributed to public unease over large-scale deportations of otherwise law-abiding individuals. When DHS refused to consider changes to Secure Communities, hundreds of cities, states, and counties effectively dropped out of the program. At last count, four states, 326 counties, and 32 cities had passed laws and ordinances to limit or bar cooperation in transferring arrestees to ICE custody, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

Now the Obama administration has announced an initiative that seeks to rebalance relations with state and local jurisdictions over interior enforcement.

As part of the executive actions on immigration announced in November 2014, President Obama ended Secure Communities and ordered its replacement with a new Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), launched on July 1. With PEP, ICE will continue to identify deportable noncitizens when local law enforcement submits fingerprint records to the FBI. But PEP will limit immigration detainers (the form ICE uses to request that an agency transfer a noncitizen to ICE custody) to those who have been convicted of a serious crime (rather than all arrestees) or who pose a threat to public safety—addressing perhaps the biggest complaint about Secure Communities. PEP will also permit local communities to negotiate more specific detainer policies on a case-by-case basis. The goal of these negotiations is to convince communities that abandoned Secure Communities to opt back into a cooperative relationship with DHS.

While it remains to be seen how local jurisdictions react, the newly launched PEP program holds the promise of improving federal-local relations in immigration enforcement and preventing the kind of disconnect that occurred in San Francisco and the tragedy that ensued.

Marc Rosenblum is Deputy Director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute.