fb-pixel Skip to main content

I immigrated to the United States from Portugal with my parents when I was a child. My immigrant experience is shared by many families in New Bedford, the city I represent in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Because the US immigration system affects so many of us, its significance cannot be underestimated.

Like many of my constituents who arrived here from distant shores, I am relieved and energized by the arrival of the Biden administration, which welcomes the contributions of hardworking immigrants to the nation I’m proud to call my own. Along with so many immigrants, I welcome the reversal of policies that attacked not just our immigration system, but the very identity of the United States as a nation of immigrants.


But there is one federal immigration program that the new administration has not taken steps to end. Created by Congress under a Democratic administration in 1996, the so-called 287(g) program empowers Immigration and Customs Enforcement to co-opt state and local correctional personnel as immigration agents, whose services to the federal government are thereby paid for with state taxpayer dollars.

Immigration enforcement is the federal government’s responsibility. The use of state resources for a discriminatory federal program that has so severely damaged the relationship between immigrant communities and local police, the court system, departments of public health, and other institutions is why I’ve reintroduced legislation to end this practice in Massachusetts every session since 2017.

Massachusetts is the only state in New England with 287(g) agreements — and ICE has four here, including one in my own district, with the Bristol County Sheriff’s Office, where notorious abuse of immigrant detainees has earned the office the approbation of the state attorney general’s civil rights division. These costly agreements are also under legal challenge by advocacy groups, including the NAACP of Massachusetts, as violations of state law.


Plymouth and Barnstable county sheriffs have also entered into 287(g) contracts, as has our state Department of Correction. It’s worth noting that only Arizona, Georgia, and Florida — states with some of the harshest policies in the nation toward immigrants — allow their DOC to participate in this program. Strange bedfellows for Massachusetts, which prides itself as a beacon of civil rights.

We don’t know exactly how much these controversial agreements cost Massachusetts taxpayers because the state doesn’t require sheriffs to report their expenditures on this program. However, the Gwinnett County 287(g) agreement cost Georgia taxpayers $3.7 million per year, and the Charleston County agreement — with a smaller population size than Bristol County — cost South Carolina taxpayers $12 million in 2018-20. And that’s not even mentioning the cost of fighting lawsuits. Newly elected sheriffs in both counties withdrew from the program in January, citing costs and discriminatory impact on people of color.

Furthermore, it is well documented that 287(g) agreements do not lead to a reduction in crime, and that the majority of people deported under 287(g) have either committed no crime at all or have been picked up for traffic violations or other nonviolent, minor crimes, including driving without a license, which is denied to them under state law. When people are brought to a jail that has a 287(g) agreement with ICE, they often disappear into federal custody — sometimes physically in the same facility. But all that their families know is that they were picked up by police and later deported, which increases the already corrosive mistrust of law enforcement in immigrant communities. This leads to underreporting of crime and exploitation and fear of going to court for domestic violence-related restraining orders or other protective orders.


President Biden has never promised to end the use of this pernicious and discriminatory program, which has survived successive Democratic and Republican administrations for over 25 years. Massachusetts should not wait for action on this issue from the federal administration or a divided Congress. The Massachusetts Legislature has the power to end this shameful collaboration, and should do so without delay.

State Representative Antonio F. D. Cabral represents the 13th Bristol District and is chair of the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight.