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Background Information: Local Policing and Immigrant Enforcement

For decades, the federal government has sought to use local law enforcement agencies to enhance its immigration enforcement efforts.

All too often, these agencies have been happy to oblige – to the detriment of public safety and community building.

Across the South, local and state legislators have handed over our tax dollars to support the federal immigration dragnet, and many city police and county sheriff departments have willingly agreed to spend our tax dollars on federal immigration enforcement. What’s more, the Trump administration has punished “sanctuary” or “welcoming” cities and counties – those that have chosen not to entangle themselves in federal immigration law enforcement – by illegally cutting off federal funding.

The SPLC is committed to reducing the entanglement of federal immigration enforcement and local law enforcement agencies across the Deep South.

Our current efforts include litigating against harmful and racist laws like Florida’s SB 168, which requires local law enforcement agencies across the state to use their “best efforts” to support the enforcement of federal immigration law.

We’ve called out the expansion of entanglement programs like basic ordering agreements and the Warrant Service Officer program, in which local law enforcement agencies keep people in jail after their criminal cases have ended, to give U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) the opportunity to pick them up and deport them.

We’ve filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs in support of other cases to educate judges about the harmful effects of federal-local immigration entanglement. Through litigation and education, we’ve sought to prevent local agencies from interrogating people about their immigration status and attempting to turn them over to federal immigration authorities.  

Since the early 2000s, we’ve been monitoring enforcement trends in the region and fighting for people who are caught in the deportation machine. We’ve fought for immigrant workers threatened with deportation after standing up for their workplace rights. We’ve defeated vicious anti-immigrant laws in Alabama and Georgia. And we’ve been there to hold law enforcement accountable when the police racially profiled a Latinx man in the Atlanta suburbs and beat him up.

We’ve also been working with community groups to educate local and county governments about the importance of collecting accurate demographic data during traffic stops to identify potential racial, ethnic and national origin disparities in policing.

Local law enforcement’s entanglement with ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection leaves us all less safe. Without a basic level of trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they are meant to serve, people will not step forward to report crime and communities will become even more susceptible to abuse and exploitation. When police or sheriff’s departments funnel people to federal immigration authorities, immigrant communities are afraid to interact with law enforcement – even when they are the victims of or witnesses to crime.

What’s more, traffic stops for minor moving violations and racial profiling threaten to funnel individuals into the immigration system and, potentially, deportation proceedings, which is what happened to the Martinez family in 2017 as they traveled through Mississippi on their way to a vacation. Even U.S. citizens are misidentified and detained in county jails until ICE can pick them up – as happened to SPLC client Peter Brown in Key West, Florida.

Local communities are under no obligation to turn their police officers into ICE agents. Indeed, basic principles of federalism prevent the federal government from conscripting local communities’ resources in that way. Unfortunately, too many communities, and even entire states, are voluntarily spending their own tax dollars to do the federal government’s work. 

The federal government’s reliance on local police and sheriffs to enforce immigration law must be halted, and the safety of immigrant communities must be prioritized. The SPLC is committed to fighting abuses of immigrants by local police and protecting the rights of Southern cities and counties to welcome immigrants.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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