In the wake of a Government Accountability Office report that found widespread inconsistencies among law enforcement agencies participating in the voluntary immigration enforcement program, 287(g), the Department of Homeland Security today announced a major overhaul of the program.

DHS is requiring all local law enforcement agencies to sign a new, universal Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), within 90 days, specifying the program’s purpose as “identifying and processing for removal, criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety or danger to the community.” Previously, GAO found, the program’s mandate to deport illegal immigrants convicted of ‘violent crimes, human smuggling, gang/organized crime activity, sexual-related offenses, narcotics smuggling and money laundering” was not clearly stated in program materials and MOAs, and as a result some agencies had “used 287(g) authority to process individuals for minor crimes, such as speeding, contrary to the objective of the program.”

An outline of the new MOA (DOC, 44 KB) released to the Indy shows the Department has codified priority levels for the arrest and detention of criminal aliens, meaning that deporting illegal immigrants for non-violent offenses, such as traffic violations, will be a lower priority than deporting illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes and serious drug offenses. Furthermore, the new MOA has added a clause specifically barring racial profiling, which was not addressed in previous MOAs:

Original MOA: Federal civil rights not addressed

New MOA: Agency personnel are bound by all Federal civil rights laws regulations and guidance relating to non-discrimination

The new MOA also addresses communication failures, and critical oversight problems, by requiring all 287(g) programs to clearly state where complaints should be forwarded, providing a mechanism for DHS to evaluate and approve local programs, and adding new requirements to officers participating in the program.

Perhaps the most sweeping change involves the method of arrest, which previously could trigger a defendant’s deportation process, even if the charges were later dropped.

“To address concerns that individuals may be arrested for minor offenses as a guise to initiate removal proceedings, the new agreement explains that participating local law enforcement agencies are required to pursue all criminal charges that originally caused the offender to be taken into custody,” the Department said in a press release.

Marty Rosenbluth, staff attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said that language “should put an end to what we’re seeing in Alamance and Wake, where they arrest [suspected illegal immigrants] on these charges, and then they drop the charges, so they go straight to deportation hearings.”

A joint study by UNC Law School and the ACLU of North Carolina found that, in Alamance and Mecklenburg Counties, the vast majority of illegal immigrants stopped by 287(g) officers are arrested for traffic offenses. The study, which found 287(g) to be “an ineffective means of immigration enforcement” that often violated Constitutional protections and discouraged the reporting of serious crimes, focused on Alamance County’s MOA in particular, which it deemed “often vague and confusing, with both parties often in noncompliance.”

Previously, each local agency had its own MOA, an inconsistency the new MOA will end, DHS spokesperson Matt Chandler said in an interview.

‘We want to make sure that the local departments have the same standards and same oversight, and are going to be held accountable for executing their agreements in a judicious way,” he said.

If agencies do not sign the new MOA within 90 days, Chandler said, the Department will terminate their agreement, which allows local law-enforcement agencies to function as federal immigration agents.

With today’s announcement, DHS also announced 11 new 287(g) programs, including Guilford County, which becomes the ninth North Carolina jurisdiction to participate in 287(g). The others are: Alamance, Cabarrus, Cumberland, Gaston, Henderson, Mecklenburg and Wake Counties, and the City of Durham.

Update (7/11/09): This post has been updated to clarify 287(g) as a “voluntary immigration enforcement program.”