Corrections officers in Bristol and Plymouth counties will help federal immigration agents find and deport illegal immigrants being held in their jails, a move that could boost President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to speed up deportations.
The sheriffs plan to sign agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Wednesday that will give them the authority to help enforce federal immigration law, though only inside the jails.
“I’m ecstatic about it because I’ve wanted to get it for a long time,” said Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson, who recently stirred controversy by offering inmates to help build Trump’s wall on the US-Mexico border. “It’s important that we use all our tools to prevent crime. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Trump has pledged to deport 2 million to 3 million criminals, and the sheriffs, both Republicans, say their efforts will streamline the deportation process by using corrections officers to interview immigrants, scour federal databases, and report those here illegally to ICE, which will decide who to detain to face deportation proceedings.
Immigration agents say the program, known as 287(g) for the section of the law that authorizes it, can dramatically expand their reach. Bristol plans to assign eight to 12 corrections officers to the program, while Plymouth will assign two or three officers. After four weeks of basic training, the officers will work for ICE while carrying out their regular duties at the jails.
“The continued expansion of the 287(g) program serves as a force multiplier for ICE within local jails, enhancing public safety with each criminal alien identified and removed from our communities,” said ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez. “This program is a proven success and ICE is confident that these new partners will continue in that example.”
Each jail houses over 1,000 inmates a day, and they serve a geographical area that encompasses nearly 50 cities and towns, including New Bedford, Brockton, and others with high numbers of immigrants.
Many inmates have already been convicted of a crime, such as theft, which is unrelated to their immigration status, and are serving their sentences in the jails. But others have not yet gone on trial, and advocates say they are worried that this group includes people who are innocent or arrested for minor violations, such as traffic offenses.
Plymouth Sheriff Joseph McDonald said the program will target convicted criminals or people arrested for serious crimes.
“We’re not going to be out there actively shaking the trees and looking for people that we identify as illegal,” McDonald said. “These are individuals that have committed other crimes in the community and fit a priority that is defined not by us, but by immigration.”
But advocates say immigrants are already terrified to report crime, for fear of being deported, and said they will be even less likely to call police for help if local jailers are aiding immigration officials.
“Separating families is not something that we’re going to let him do,” said Isabel Lopez, lead organizer for the Brockton Interfaith Community, an association of 19 churches in the largest city in Plymouth County. She said she plans to protest the signing Wednesday. “He needs to put his efforts into providing better reentry programs and not focusing on destroying families.”
Nationwide, 34 other law-enforcement agencies in 26 states are also enrolled in the program, according to ICE.
In Massachusetts, only the state Department of Correction has been involved in the program until now, though other agencies have tried it.
The Framingham Police withdrew from the program in 2009 because the federal government wanted them to more aggressively enforce immigration law. The police feared that would erode trust in the community.
The Barnstable County Sheriff’s Office also signed up for the program, but said federal officials canceled their involvement before they got started because they did not need the program in their area.