By MEGAN MILLER
WASHINGTON (March 5, 2009)—A federal immigration enforcement program in use in Frederick County, lacks clear and consistent goals and adequate supervision, according to testimony by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a Congressional hearing Wednesday.
The program, authorized under section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, allows willing local police forces nationwide to work as field agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those officers become an extension of the agency in investigating and processing immigration cases.
The program has seen a "remarkable surge in popularity" since 2006, said Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
"Participation has grown from 29 programs ... in 13 states to 67 programs in 23 states today," Thompson said. "Forty-two state and local law jurisdictions are on the waiting list (to join)."
In Maryland, the ICE program has been controversial since the Frederick County Sheriff's Department implemented it in mid-2008.
Sheriff Chuck Jenkins told the panel Wednesday that the program has been "a valuable tool to law enforcement in fighting crime."
Yet the GAO, which investigates government spending, reported Wednesday on disorganization within the program, including ICE's failure to make clear to participating police that the program's goal is targeting major criminals.
"As a result, of 29 program participants reviewed by GAO, four used 287(g) authority to process individuals for minor crimes, such as speeding, contrary to the objective of the program," the GAO report said.
Since Frederick County began the program, Jenkins said, 309 illegal immigrants were referred to deportation proceedings, including nine members of the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs.
The first person held for ICE in Frederick County was arrested for drunk driving in a school zone during school hours, Jenkins said.
Montgomery County toughened its handling of suspected illegal immigrants in January, but chose not to participate in the ICE program.
Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger testified to the committee that most local police departments nationwide have decided not to participate in the ICE program.
The program is not a good option, especially for police forces in urban areas, Manger said, because it could create distrust between the police and large immigrant communities, among other concerns.
Manger also compared the complexity of immigration law to tax law, saying it is better left to federal authorities.
"If the federal government comes to the conclusion someday that too many people are tax evaders, will the solution be to authorize local police to enforce tax laws? This is contrary to our mission," Manger said.
Immigrant rights organization CASA of Maryland said the GAO findings illustrate the need for comprehensive federal immigration reform.
"The GAO and hopefully this committee are saying what we have been saying all along, which is that these programs are thinly-veiled excuses for mass deportations, and there's a better way to deal with the so-called illegal immigrant problem," said CASA lawyer Kerry O'Brien.
Wednesday's hearing was held to determine whether the ICE program is accomplishing its intended goal of removing dangerous illegal immigrants from U.S. communities.
"In the last three years, the 287(g) program's budget has increased from $5 million to $60 million," Thompson said in his opening remarks.
"To determine whether this was a prudent way to spend the taxpayer's money, we would need to know whether the people removed were dangerous aliens. Unfortunately, we do not know that critical piece of information."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.