By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008; Page PW01
Prince William County may have one of the nation's toughest enforcement laws against illegal immigration, but a recent examination of largely less stringent measures across the country found that their impact on communities is often the same.
Five years ago, immigration enforcement wasn't on the radar of most local law enforcement agencies, according to James Pendergraph, director of state and local coordination for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The 287(g) program, which is named for the section of the law authorizing it and allows local law enforcement officials to assist ICE in processing illegal immigrants, was first authorized in 1996. Yet the law sat unused for most of a decade. In 2003 Alabama became the first state to implement an agreement.
Only six more agreements were made from 2004 to 2006. The number has jumped since, with 55 state and local law enforcement agencies entering into agreements. An additional 80 are in the pipeline.
Prince William signed on last summer. Part of what distinguishes it from other jurisdictions is that it works with ICE in its jails and through a special task force of police officers on the street. But as in other communities, its law has divided the community and raised fears among immigrants.
"Prince William has been the catalyst for the expansion of the 287(g) program across the U.S.," said Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large).
"There were just a handful doing it before us. The pioneering jurisdictions, Prince William principally among them, have been the impetus for this proliferation."
Randy Capps, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, studied the evolution of the program and its potential effects on communities.
"It coincides with the concerted effort, by a well-coordinated group of like-minded people, to put pressure on authorities to get involved in immigration enforcement," he said of the agreements.
Most of the participating 287(g) jurisdictions are in the Southeast; Virginia had the most, with nine, followed by North Carolina, with eight.
More than 60,000 suspected illegal immigrants have been identified through the program in the past two years, Capps found. Statistics ICE provided to the Virginia State Crime Commission show that in fiscal 2007, law enforcement agencies in the state made 12,073 reports to the federal agency, which resulted in 694 detentions.
The Urban Institute also conducted a case study on how the program was implemented in four jurisdictions in northwestern Arkansas. It found a steady but moderate number of arrests, about 15 per week. Yet the fear level increased among immigrants. Many were scared to drive or leave their homes.
All of that should sound familiar to Prince William residents.
"If you are an illegal immigrant, you should be anxious and concerned about driving," Stewart said. "To the extent that we have caused anxiety among the illegal community, I think that's a good thing, because we don't want them here in the first place."
Among the potential effects of arrests on communities, Capps cited increasing distrust between the community and police and a decrease in the number of immigrants reporting crime. Capps made his presentation last week to several hundred police and local officials at a conference on immigration policing and civil liberties in the District. The conference was sponsored by the Police Foundation, a private national group.
At its Sept. 9 meeting, the first after a month-long recess, the county board is expected to get an update on illegal immigration enforcement.