States and cities that want to speed up deportations of criminals and suspects who are illegal immigrants by using a popular but controversial federal program face waiting up to three years to join the enforcement effort, because the federal government can't keep up with the demand.
Political pressure for stricter policing of illegal immigration has propelled the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency's 287(g) initiative from a little-noticed experiment two years ago to one of the hottest ideas for local and state officials to deal with immigration, as broader federal efforts languish.
Law enforcement ranks first as an issue in immigration-related legislation introduced on the state level as of March 2008, according to an April report of the National Conference of State Legislatures .
At the start of 2007, only eight police agencies took part in the 287(g) program; now a total of 47 police agencies in 17 states participate, with 90 more waiting to sign up. To date, more than 50,000 people have been deported or have been marked for deportation under the 287(g) program, according to ICE. More than half of those were processed since October.
But ICE is short of money to expand the program, which reimburses local police agencies for holding prisoners, pays for a five-week training course for participating officers and provides the technology to allow those police to access federal immigration databases.
The agency also foots the bill for housing and removing the immigrants once they leave the local jail.
ICE's total budget for the program is roughly $26.2 million, an agency spokesman said.
To deal with the sudden interest, ICE officials are getting pickier about what local plans they will support, while encouraging police agencies to re-focus their enforcement efforts.
ICE now offers two options for police agencies seeking the 287(g) program. They can apply to the program to train their jail guards or other correction officers to screen arrestees and other inmates to make sure they're in the country legally, or they can set up task forces that deal with a certain kind of crime - such as gang activity or document forgery - that often involves illegal immigrants.
The agency is moving away from an earlier model, used in places such as Alabama and Colorado, that trained state highway patrols to check immigration status during traffic stops, said James Wright, who works on ICE's state and local government coordination.
The 287(g) program was always supposed to focus on criminals here illegally, rather than the larger group of 12 million undocumented immigrants thought to be in the United States. ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said most local agencies agree with ICE that beefing up immigration enforcement in local jails "is the best use of resources, by both federal and local law enforcement agencies."
ICE already stations its own officers in local and state prisons under the Criminal Alien Program, and it wants to remove all illegal immigrants behind bars in federal, state and local facilities through its Project Shield America .
The federal agency also has programs that specifically target gangs, human trafficking, document fraud and intellectual property theft.
But Jessica Vaughan, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Policies , a group that supports stricter immigration rules and enforcement, said ICE's approach limits the options for local and state officials.
"It's legitimate to ask whether ICE should be dictating the kinds of agreements that are possible. Or should ICE be responding to what state and local governments want?" she asked.
Congress should decide that question, but it hasn't weighed in, beyond providing more money for the program, Vaughan said.
Vaughan argued that screenings for illegal immigrants during traffic stops - which critics attacked for inviting racial profiling - are "much more proactive and are going to make much more of an impact in the long run, because they're going to shut down the pipelines of illegal aliens into this country."
But racial profiling in 287 (g) programs that screen prisoners in jails could also be a concern, said Joan Friedland, immigration policy director for the National Immigration Law Center , a group supporting immigrant rights.
The shift of focus from the roads to local jails could simply encourage police to arrest more people they suspect of being in the country illegally, Friedland said. Without closer oversight, the question that looms, Friedland said, is: "How do they get to jail?"
Friedland noted that 287 (g) hasn't been scrutinized by outside auditors the way other federal initiatives to crack down on illegal immigration have, such as the federal E-Verify database that's designed to help companies check the legal work status of new employees. She said such rigorous examinations are important, because, in the case of E-Verify, they exposed numerous shortcomings.
In the meantime, ICE is trying to tamp down demand for 287(g) by promoting other options for local law enforcement, such as gaining access to federal databases to help police fight document fraud and gang activity. The agency is shopping around many of its existing programs through its "Access" initiative, unveiled in August, which offers state and local governments options to address their needs without relying on the 287(g) program.
With Access, ICE hopes to cut the waiting time for new 287(g) applicants down to six to nine months, said Wright, the ICE liaison to state and local governments.
But Vaughan, the analyst who wants stricter immigration controls, said continued interest in the 287(g) program shows it works. Police agencies are becoming more interested in it, after they've seen how it has performed in other areas, she said.
"The great demand for the program," Vaughan said, "is the greatest indicator of the success of the program."