April 29, 2010
Encouraging state and local law enforcement agencies to help enforce federal immigration laws could help identify out-of-status immigrants eligible for deportation, but may also have unintended consequences, according to a study issued today by the RAND Corporation.
"Enforcement of immigration laws has traditionally been a federal responsibility," said Jessica Saunders, lead author of the study and a criminologist with RAND, a nonprofit research organization. "But it's clear that the federal government alone isn't going to be able to clear the backlog of cases without some additional assistance.
"The question is, how do you involve state and local law enforcement in immigration enforcement without disrupting their regular duties or placing additional, undue financial burdens on cities and states? Currently there is no consistent, nationwide approach."
The RAND study provides an overview of the federal laws that addresses the problem of unauthorized immigration and highlights emerging state and local responses to immigration issues. Saunders and her colleagues also suggest areas for further research to add evidence to the largely anecdotal information that characterizes discussion of comprehensive immigration reform.
Researchers say partnerships between federal, state and local law enforcement is one policy option that is gaining popularity. For example, Arizona's governor this month signed a law makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally and directs police to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal.
There are 67 formal agreements between the federal government and state and local criminal justice agencies empowering local officials to enforce immigration laws. Such efforts are credited with identifying 140,000 deportable immigrants from 2006 to 2009.
However, such efforts come with concerns about the potential for racial profiling, strained community relations and improper resource allocation, Saunders said.
There are an estimated 12 million out-of-status immigrants currently in the United States, including people who entered the United States illegally and those who overstayed their visas. A third group, about 5 percent of all out-of-status immigrants, consists of those who have been processed through the courts and subsequently ignored deportation orders. That group is the target of stepped-up national law enforcement efforts.
At the current rate and budget levels, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency estimates that it would take 15 years and more than $5 billion to clear just the backlog of those who have been ordered deported.
In many regions, state and local law enforcement do not actively engage in immigration enforcement. Those agencies have adopted policies of limited cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts where they support federal efforts to remove illegal immigrants convicted of felonies, but decline to identify and remove undocumented immigrants. Many cities, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the District of Columbia, Chicago, Baltimore and Boston, have passed legislation explicitly limiting local law enforcement's role in enforcing immigration laws.
Other jurisdictions have partnered with the federal officials to enforce immigration laws. These partnerships can work, but at a cost, Saunders said. A 2007 partnership between Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and the sheriff's department in Maricopa County, Arizona, resulted in deputies identifying 16,000 illegal immigrants among 106,000 jail inmates over three months.
However, the effort racked up a debt of $1.3 million in only three months, the percentage of crimes the department solved dropped and the time it took for officers to respond to calls for service grew. The federal government has since cancelled the agreement and the sheriff now faces a lawsuit alleging racial profiling stemming from the immigration enforcement practices.
Another concern is that if state and local law enforcement officers begin enforcing immigration laws, it will promote fear and distrust among the immigrant population at large. This could hamper state and local law enforcement's ability to investigate other crimes and interfere with its mission to protect and serve all members of the public, whether or not they are citizens.
Researchers suggest policymakers should focus further research and analysis on questions such as whether effective immigration enforcement can occur without state and local support, whether immigration enforcement compromises local agency's primary mission, and whether immigration enforcement can be conducted while minimizing the risk of racial bias or racial profiling.
The study, "Enforcing Immigration Law at the State and Local Levels: A Public Policy Dilemma," can be found at www.rand.org. Other authors include Nelson Lim and Don Prosnitz.
Research for the study was funded by and conducted under the auspices of the RAND Center on Quality Policing, which is part of the Safety and Justice Program within RAND Infrastructure, Safety and Environment. The center's mission is to help guide the efforts of police agencies to improve the efficiency, effectiveness and fairness of their operations.