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If we're to gauge by the crowd at a recent public feedback session, the sheriffs of Washington and Benton counties might be on thin ICE when it comes to administering a program advanced by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

That's probably not an accurate impression, though.

What’s the point?

A program that empowers local sheriff’s offices to enforce immigration laws after someone is arrested on local charges is not the problem with immigration in this country.

The program is known as 287g, a reference to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, passed back when Bill Clinton was president. It added Section 287g to the Immigration and Nationality Act, creating a mechanism by which the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency can, through a memorandum of agreement, empower local law enforcement agencies to perform functions similar to immigration officers. It requires any local employees involved to undergo weeks of initial training, backed up with additional training every two years.

Training for what? The program gives those local agencies access to federal databases so that, when certain indicators are present that suggest a legitimate question about an arrested person's legal status, the local officers can investigate that legal status. In the local programs, sheriff's Tim Helder of Washington County and Shawn Holloway of Benton County say that happens after a person has been taken into custody for other reasons, i.e., suspicions of violating local or state laws. Federal immigration officials consider 287g a "force multiplier" that expands the nation's capacity to enforce its immigration laws.

The United States has lost control of its immigration enforcement efforts. Some might say it voluntarily ignored them when it proved beneficial to U.S. businesses. And now that the country has a seemingly xenophobic leader in the White House, critics of immigration enforcement naturally tend to paint enforcement efforts as tainted by racism.

They certainly are imperfect. And it makes sense that the the millions of people who do not have legal status to be in the United States would want to do as much as possible to render enforcement efforts ineffective.

We don't think that's a solution at all.

At the recent public feedback session in Benton County, critics of the program engaged in their own "force multiplier," marshaling more than 100 people to pack the hearing room. The first rule of protesting is that numbers matter.

In our two counties, the population is around a half-million people. We'd be willing to bet a vast majority are comfortable that their local jails are engaged in trying to help deal with the presence of people illegally in the country and in violation of local laws.

Whatever evidence the program's critics want to cite in claiming the nation's immigration laws are flawed and need changing, we applaud their efforts. Certainly, supporters of local immigrants can cite some cases in which the nation's immigration enforcement takes too long to straighten out bureaucratic entanglements that wreak havoc on people whose immigration status is difficult to discern.

The nation needs to tighten border security, improve its methods of monitoring visa holders and develop an immigration system that expands options for legal immigration rather than shrinks them.

The answers for the United States isn't to ignore its own laws. That's what has resulted in millions of people illegally residing in this country to begin with. Who can seriously fault individuals for wanting better lives? The real culprit in the failures of the nation's immigration system and border security are in Washington, D.C., not in Springdale or Pasadena or Laredo.

Sure, our local sheriffs' departments could reject participation in the program, but for what reason? To signal that Northwest Arkansas is a welcoming place ready to give sanctuary to those discovered, after their arrest, to be in the country illegally? So that the concerted effort to thwart enforcement of the nation's immigration laws will be empowered even more?

Most concerns really appear to be about the nation's enforcement of immigration laws, not so much about how local agencies are doing their jobs beyond the fact that their participation probably increases the likelihood of someone in the country illegally getting caught.

ICE itself needs to be less secretive and more responsive to concerns, but does the 287g program get rid of some illegal residents who do not need to be part of the community? As long as the sheriffs find value in enforcement through 287g, the answer isn't to kill it, especially given that the real problems aren't with local enforcement, but with national policies. The 287g program is accessible, though, so why not attack it?

The sheriffs in Benton and Washington counties don't have anything to apologize for.

Commentary on 12/16/2018

Print Headline: The enforcers

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