287(g): What is Being Done in Our Name?

by Peggy Dickerson

At the Spring meeting of the Charlotte Women’s March, on April 24, Barbara Randolph, immigrant justice advocate and activist, took her turn on our panel to share critical, and frequently misunderstood, facts related to Mecklenburg County’s participation in the controversial 287(g) program. 287(g) refers to a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act authorizing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency to enter into partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies to target serious crime related to immigration. Mecklenburg County is one of only 68 counties in the U.S. (there are 3,142 counties in the US) that have 287(g) agreements between ICE and our sheriff’s department. In NC, other participating counties are Cabarrus, Gaston, Henderson, Nash and Wake Counties.

In January 2017 two executive orders expanded the reach of the 287(g) program, making all undocumented immigrants priorities for removal, with no regard for criminal history. While the original intent of the 287(g) program was to target serious crime, advocates for immigrant justice have noted a concerted campaign over the last 18 months to associate all immigrants with crime.

Even language used in the definition of crimes committed by immigrants has become politically played. Randolph noted that over the past two decades, the term aggravated felony has become so broadly defined in immigration legislation that many crimes under immigration law (not criminal law), are neither aggravated nor a felony. Unduly classified felonies can now include simple battery, minor theft, failure to file a tax return or to appear in court.

Empirical data exists at the national level on links between immigration and crime, and abundant nonpartisan research shows lower levels of crime among immigrants than among native-born Americans. Randolph cites a 2010 UNC Chapel Hill study1 regarding the 287(g) programs in NC that examined rates of crime, immigration and Hispanic population growth in all NC counties and found no link between Hispanic population growth or greater rates of immigration on the incidence of crime. In fact, violent crime had been decreasing since 1993 in counties during the time period of greatest immigration. Mecklenburg County, which was a pioneer of the 287(g) movement in the state, had the most dramatic reductions in violent crimes during the 14 years leading up to the adoption of the 287(g) program—which was also the highest growth period for its immigrants and Hispanics2.

More opaque and difficult to obtain is competing data from proponents of 287(g), who offer more anecdotal support for continuation of the program. Many 287(g) advocates take the position that immigrants who don’t commit crime should have nothing to fear from the program. But when a traffic stop for driving without a license (NC requires a social security number to obtain a license) can result in catastrophic consequences including indefinite detention, removal from family, job loss and deportation, we may conclude that recent changes to immigration law are in reality designed to incarcerate and deport people primarily for their inability to access pathways to legal status.

Also of note is the reluctance of the sheriff’s department to fully inform taxpayers of the cost of 287(g). The initial cost in 2006 was reported to be $5M, not including annual maintenance, operations and litigation.

In the May 8th election, the sheriff’s race includes one candidate, incumbent Irwin Carmichael, who maintains continued support for continuation of the 287(g) program. Carmichael’s primary election opponents, Antoine Ensley and Garry McFadden, favor discontinuing Mecklenburg County’s support.

Those in law enforcement who oppose participation in 287(g) often cite a belief that our current criminal justice system is sufficient to address criminal offenders, without 287(g), and caution against the erosion of public trust in law enforcement driven by the program.

Regardless of the outcome of the Mecklenburg County sheriff’s race, where support for 287(g) is a central issue, this month’s panel discussion served as a reminder of the responsiblity we all share to actively follow what our local government is doing in our name, to challenge the terminology we are hearing, and to seek substantiated data when confronted with critical public issues—and to take positive action if we don’t like what we see.

More about Barbara:

Barbara Randolph currently resides in Davidson, NC, and works as a volunteer advocate for immigrant communities in the northern corridor, interpreting for the Ada Jenkins Center in their work with the Latino community, and mentoring Latina adolescents for Circle de Luz and Chidsey Leadership Fellows for Davidson College. She formerly served as the Executive Director of the Fundación México en Harvard, in Mexico City, working to ensure all Mexican students admitted to Harvard’s graduate school programs received necessary scholarship funding, and where she instituted a competitive research program for fellowships between Mexico and Harvard, aligned with Mexico’s National Scientific Agenda.

1(Social Science Quarterly-Green 2016)

(Hagen, Levi, Dinovitzer – 2008)

(Butcher and Piehl-1998)

(Hagen and Palloni-1998)

Researchers find either no significant relationship between crime and immigration, or they find that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes compared to natives. These results hold steady across country level analyses (Tonry 1997, Yeager 1997) as well as national level (Chen and Zhong 2013; Mears 2001), city level (Bradshaw et al 1998: Martinez and Lee 2000: Ousey and Kubrin 2009), and neighborhood level studies (Alaniz, Cartmill and Parker 1998; Samson, Morenoff and Raudenbush 2005). A number of explanations for this phenomenon have likewise been suggested, such as immigrant self-selection resulting in hard-working individuals making positive contributions to the host economy (Borias 1993; Cobb-Clark 1993, Model 1995), immigrant optimism and determination in the face of hardship and disadvantage (Kao and Tienda 1995; Martinez 2006) and close family and community ties reducing the propensity to commit crime (Ousey and Kubrin 2009; Samson, Morenoff and Raudenbush 2005).

2 https://isa.unc.edu/files/2012/06/287g report final.pdf

For more detailed information about the 287(g) program click here. For more information about the candidates in the sheriff’s race in the May 8 Primary click  here and here.

Thank you to Brent Bent and Revospect Productions for the photos from this event.


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