Saturday, July 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
A coalition of immigration lawyers, civil liberties advocates and community activists is pressuring Metro Sheriff Doug Gillespie to abandon a controversial eight-month-old program that identifies illegal immigrants in jail for eventual deportation.
The group, which includes the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Democracia USA, a nonprofit organization, is seizing on two recent events and attacking the program with petitions, letters and meetings.
First, the federal government announced changes in the program, known as 287(g), on July 10 and gave local jurisdictions 90 days to accept or reject the new setup. Second, a well-attended public meeting July 16 at Pearson Community Center hardened the group’s opposition to the program. Members of the organizations say civil liberties are being violated, crime-fighting goals aren’t being met and community relations with police in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods are falling apart.
“We want to use this 90-day period to impress upon Gillespie that the negatives outweigh the positives,” said Peter Ashman, chairman of the local immigration lawyers association.
Metro Police Lt. Rich Forbus, who oversees the 287(g) program, says the problems to date are mostly due to misunderstandings. “It concerns me and it will concern the sheriff when he hears ... that people wouldn’t want to report crime. We don’t want to be perceived as being out there sweeping the community,” he said, adding that Metro will get the word out more about the program’s benefits.
The federal-local partnerships exist in 77 jurisdictions across the nation. The goal is to rid communities of violent criminals who are also in the country illegally, by deporting them. Police departments can reach that goal by using officers on the street, in jails, or both. Since November, Metro Police have had federally-trained officers flagging illegal immigrants at the Clark County Detention Center.
But critics here and across the nation have complained that officers in the programs are singling out people for arrest based on appearance, in the process chilling relations in immigrant communities, making it harder to fight crime. They asked for numbers that would prove violent criminals are being jailed and deported, and got little in response. Many departments, including Metro, could not even point to the number of inmates deported through the partnership.
So Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had a standardized agreement drawn up that police now have to sign to stay in the program. The new agreement clearly spells out that people charged with major drug and violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and kidnapping are top priorities for departments wanting to check the immigration status of arrestees.
But the national ACLU says the agreement doesn’t require police departments to prove they are following this priority by providing statistics, for example.
The ACLU of Nevada has asked Metro to supply numbers to date on arrests, charges, sentences, deportations and other aspects of the program. Forbus said that will happen by mid-August. As of July 11, immigration officials had flagged 1,549 Clark County jail inmates, but Forbus couldn’t say how many had been deported.
At the July 16 town-hall meeting, community members complained about friends or family members being pulleld over by an officer for a broken taillight and winding up in Mexico. One man said he had built a neighborhood watch program on his block, only to find people increasingly blind and mute when it comes to taking part, afraid that someone’s cousin would be sent packing.
The issue is not going away and may soon create controversy in a far-flung corner of Clark County. In its July 10 announcement, the Homeland Security Department noted that 11 jurisdictions across the nation would soon join 287(g) partnerships, covered by the new guidelines. One is Mesquite, the town of about 20,000 nearly 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas.
Mesquite Police spokesman Robert Everett said he hopes the program helps the town deal with gang members and other “repeat offenders.”
“We don’t have a huge problem like Las Vegas,” he added. “But we don’t want to have a huge problem.”