GOP bill would give police power to arrest immigrants over legal status

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'It would be building on this sense in law enforcement that they should be rounding up immigrants,' said one immigration attorney, who called the legislation 'profoundly dangerous.'

Republican senators co-sponsored a bill on Wednesday to expand the power of local and state law enforcement, giving them the authority to arrest undocumented immigrants based on their legal status, something immigration experts have called "profoundly dangerous."

Alabama GOP Sen. Tommy Tuberville introduced the "Empowering Law Enforcement Act" along with co-sponsors Thom Tillis (NC) and Mike Rounds (SD). The legislation would allow law enforcement officers to identify, detain, and transfer undocumented immigrants to federal custody and enable the Department of Homeland Security to detain them past the 180-day period, Fox News reported.

"The Biden administration has taken every action to tie the hands of federal law enforcement, like the Custom Border Patrol [sic] and ICE, essentially gutting the enforcement power of these federal officers," Tuberville said in a video from his office, referring to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency and Immigration and Customs Enforcement

His statement appeared to be in response to President Joe Biden's new ICE priorities that only target certain groups of undocumented immigrants for detention and deportation. The stricter criteria apply to noncitizens deemed national security or public safety threats, such as terror suspects, violent gang members, and convicted felons. It also applies to noncitizens who unlawfully entered the United States before Nov. 1, 2020.

Experts told the American Independent Foundation in February that Biden's ICE guidelines could protect thousands of undocumented immigrants from deportation. ICE guidelines under the Trump administration, by contrast, targeted nearly 100% of noncitizens, the experts noted.

Because far fewer undocumented immigrants will be detained or deported under Biden's new criteria, many Republican lawmakers claim they pose a security threat.

"The Biden administration's anti-law enforcement and pro-illegal immigration policies are creating a dangerous enforcement gap when it comes to keep our country safe. The Empowering Law Enforcement Act addresses this problem head-on with a common-sense solution that will increase the safety and security of our nation," Tuberville said on Wednesday.

The Alabama senator aims to solve the purported problem by allowing local and state law enforcement to step in to enforce immigration laws against any immigrant without legal status, an apparent effort to return to the vastly broad ICE guidelines under Donald Trump.

But state and local law enforcement already have some power to enforce immigration laws through the 287(g) Program, under which they enter agreements to cooperate with federal immigration authorities like ICE.

According to the American Immigration Council, as of June 2020, 21 states had entered into "jail enforcement model" agreements, which enable law enforcement officers to interrogate suspected noncitizens' legal status only if they've been arrested on state or local charges. For those subject to removal, officers may use what is referred to as a detainer to hold them until ICE agents can take them into federal custody.

Nine states have "warrant service officer model" agreements, which allow ICE to train and authorize certain state and local law enforcement officers to execute ICE warrants, the group reported.

The now-defunct "task force model," which allowed officers to question and arrest noncitizens over their legal status, was discontinued in 2012, but Lena Graber, a senior staff attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, said in a phone call that Tuberville's bill could try to bring it back or allow police to enforce immigration laws without federal authorization.

"[The bill] would grant a ton of power to local law enforcement agencies and all the local politics that run those agencies," she said. "In a country where law enforcement officers already wield excessive power in harsh and discriminatory ways, it is horrifying to think of how immigrants would be further targeted and abused."

Graber stressed that the bill would give state and local law enforcement "legal legitimacy in a way that is profoundly dangerous."

"It would be building on this sense in law enforcement that they should be rounding up immigrants," she added.

Other experts similarly criticized the Republican legislation, with the American Immigration Council's policy director Jorge Loweree underscoring in an email that immigration enforcement should be a federal responsibility.

"We already spend more on immigration enforcement than all other federal law enforcement combined," he said.

"Forcing local law enforcement to serve as an arm of ICE raises serious concerns about racial profiling that undermine community policing efforts."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.