What happens when a law allows local sheriffs to enforce federal immigration rules?

In 1996, a new federal law called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act included a provision, 287(g), which allowed for police officers and sheriffs to be deputized as immigration officers and to enforce immigration laws that were typically administered by federal agents.

At the program’s peak, more than 70 law enforcement agencies took part, including the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, in Nashville, Tenn. From 2008-10, Amada Armenta, an assistant professor of sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences, interviewed and rode along with Davidson County police officers and witnessed them act as immigration agents. She wrote about her experience in her new book, “Protect, Serve, and Deport: The Rise of Policing as Immigrant Enforcement.”

During Davidson County’s participation in 287(g), law enforcement officials identified more than 11,000 potential deportation candidates—most of whom were Latino. The program, initially adopted by some agencies after 9/11 as a way to fight terrorism, suddenly transformed into what some saw as a politically beneficial response to an influx of new Latino immigrants.

“It was a brilliant but terrible way to deport people,” Armenta says.

Minimal offenses like traffic violations became a springboard to deportation proceedings.

“Anyone arrested for minor crimes, if they were foreign-born, they were screened for immigration violations,” she says. “If they were undocumented, they were processed for removal by the sheriff’s department.”

Though a number of divisions of local police had a hand in immigration enforcement, Armenta observed that no one felt accountable.

“The police would say, ‘We’re just arresting people. If you have a problem with deportation, it’s the sheriff’s fault,’” she explains. “The sheriff would say, ‘If you have a problem with the people who are getting arrested, talk to the police.’ No one thought that their role made them responsible for what was happening.”

Part of the problem, she says, was that even if undocumented immigrants wanted to follow the letter of the law, the laws themselves made doing so extremely challenging. That’s still true, she says. For example, many undocumented immigrants are ineligible to get a driver’s license, yet often, police will not accept a foreign license, passport, or consular ID as proof of identification.

“Our laws are set up such that they’re impossible to comply with when people are undocumented,” Armenta says. “Even when police departments try really hard to do immigrant outreach, which they did in this case, those efforts fail or are viewed as not sincere.”

Under the Obama Administration, the federal government stopped authorizing new programs under 287(g) in favor of prioritizing other federal enforcement initiatives that connect Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement, such as the Secure Communities program. Though today’s political climate has thrust immigration back into the spotlight, renewing interest in the program—participation jumped from 37 active departments in March 2017 to 60 today—the reach of 287(g) still falls short in comparison.

According to Armenta, that’s a good thing.

“It produced a chilling effect,” she says. “It made people afraid to call the police.” 

Next up, the sociologist will study the legal compliance and complications of undocumented immigrants in Philadelphia.

“In my first project, I focused on the people in power,” she says. “Now I’m turning to the people being regulated.”