MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Thanks again to Cheryl Corley and Korva Coleman for sitting in the last of couple of days. Coming up, we'll hear about the sister study - a new study of sisters aims to help researchers uncover new information about breast cancer.
But first, we want to talk about illegal immigration. President Obama has not spoken much about immigration reform since he took office. The issue has been overshadowed, like just about everything else, by the economy. But at least some of the previous administration's immigration measures continue apace. Among them is the use of state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws. The program, known as 287-G, has been and continues to be controversial. Law enforcement officials are divided over the cost and benefits of the program, which is one reason it was the subject of a government report and congressional hearing last week.
To talk about this, we're joined by Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of the Frederick County Sheriff's department in Maryland. He testified last week before the House committee on homeland security. We're also joined by Frank Sharry. He is the executive director of America's Voice; it's an organization that favors comprehensive immigration reform. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Sheriff CHUCK JENKINS (Frederick County): Hi Michel, this is Sheriff Jenkins, thanks for having me.
Mr. FRANK SHARRY (Executive Director, America's Voice): This is Frank Sharry, thanks for having us, Michel.
MARTIN: Thank you both. Sheriff, I want to start with you. Nationally, I think I have my numbers right, there are about 67 local and state agencies participating in the 287-G program. You have to apply to participate. Why did you want your county to participate in the program?
Sheriff JENKINS: For two reasons, Michel. First of all, going back in early 2007, I looked at two specific goals: number one were the increases in crime, regionally, that we can attribute to the problem of illegal immigration, which has gone unchecked, for the most part. Secondly, was the homeland security issue, when we think back to 9/11.
MARTIN: Now, you said in your testimony that, I'm just quoting from your prepared testimony, you said the enormous increase in crime throughout the United States, to include this region, which can be tied directly to the unchecked flow of illegal immigrants through our southern borders with Mexico. You know, a lot of people disagree with that. So I wanted to ask you just about your experience, and by that, by crimes, I assume you mean apart from immigration violations themselves, right?
Sheriff JENKINS: That's correct.
MARTIN: Okay. So since this is a matter of some dispute, can you just talk about your experience in Frederick?
Sheriff JENKINS: I can just tell you that regionally we are - we have seen, over the course of the past number of years, an increase in crime involving people who are in this country illegally. You know, largely from the metropolitan area, we've had the influx of some gang activity here in Frederick County. We're seeing that from the metro area, from northern Virginia. And frankly, I think it's a tool that law enforcement can use to stop the flow of that gang activity.
MARTIN: And just - and also calling on your testimony before the Congress, by the end of the last year you had arrested, I think, some 337 illegal immigrants, about 309 of whom were placed in removal proceedings. But of that number, I think you reported that only about a dozen had actually violent criminal records, that about nine of them had gang-related activity. Now, of course, that's nine more people then you wish you'd had, but do you think that those numbers really justify the resources that you're spending on this program?
Sheriff JENKINS: First of all, let me clarify one thing, that I am not spending an enormous amount of resources on this program. I have not created an immigration enforcement unit. I'm simply performing this duty as an extension of our law enforcement duties in both law enforcement and corrections. And frankly, we're not enforcing anything until someone has been arrested, brought into our detention center, they've been identified as being in the country illegally, that they've violated their status here, and then they will be placed, after they've been charged with a state or local crime, they are placed in removal proceedings.
MARTIN: So the status is checked after they've been charged?
Sheriff JENKINS: After they are charged, after they have been arrested.
MARTIN: After they've been arrested.
Sheriff JENKINS: They have to have been arrested and brought into our jail through the central booking system. That's - we don't do this enforcement on the street. We do it in our jail.
MARTIN: Okay, let's hear from Frank Sharry. Let's bring him in. Frank, what's your take on the 287-G program?
Mr. SHARRY: Well, there's a reason that 95 percent of the police departments in the country have decided not to participate in the 287-G program. And the reason that they give is that it undermines their community policing efforts, which are aimed to improve public safety. So, for example, if you have a situation where you have a lot of Latino immigrants, some of them have papers, some of them don't, they live in the same households and neighborhoods. If the word gets out that the police are asking for papers, even if they've stopped someone for a traffic violation or for a light being out on the car or not using an indicator, that creates a tremendous amount of reluctance in that community to report crimes, to be witnesses. If you think you're going to come forward and report a crime, but you run the risk of being detained and then deported, it is a disincentive to participate with police.
So most police think it's a bad program that they are staying away from. Some departments are trying it. Unfortunately, the poster child of bad programming is in Phoenix, Arizona, where a sheriff named Joe Arpaio recruits volunteers, some call them vigilantes. They stop people who are Latino on various pretexts, sometimes no pretext at all, and they have arrested thousands of people. And it's - the GAO recently called for much better supervision of this program because of those abuses.
MARTIN: But private citizens don't have the power to arrest people. So, Frank, just taking Sheriff Jenkins' point, what is so wrong about checking the immigration status of someone who is already in custody, who presumably has come to the attention of law enforcement for some reason?
Mr. SHARRY: Yeah. There's nothing wrong, especially if you're talking about gang members or criminals who have participated in serious felonious activity. Of course those people should be off the street, and if they don't have immigration status, should be detained and put in deportation proceedings. That's not the question. The question is if you don't have a well-supervised program, what happens is that police, in some jurisdictions, are stopping people who look Latino on various small pretexts.
Arresting them for traffic violations, bringing them into the station, turning them over to the immigration authorities, which creates a tremendous chilling effect in those communities with respect to participating in crime fighting activities.
MARTIN: Sheriff, what about that point? The argument is that it's just too easy for law enforcement to divert its attention from people who really are a danger to the community, people who are engaged in violent criminal activity or people who are involved in gang activity - and just go after low-hanging fruit, people who may be here illegally, but whose behavior is just not as critical to public safety as these other individuals. And that the diversion - and that the focus of law enforcement becomes these routine misdemeanors, as opposed to really violent individuals who really need to be the focus of law enforcement, essentially. What do you say to that argument?
Sheriff JENKINS: That's simply not the case here in Frederick County. I can tell you that - and your other guest there mentioned what would happen on a normal traffic stop? On a normal traffic stop, if the individual happens to be of a certain ethnic group, that stop is made, if that person presents a valid Maryland driver's license or from whatever state and there's no wants or warrants and there's no problems with the registration of the vehicle, he's given his citation and he or she is told to have a great day.
We're simply not going around cherry-picking the immigrant community. I will tell you this. We take all crime seriously here in Frederick County. Both myself, the Maryland state police, Frederick City police, we all work proactively against all crime, all violent crime and serious crime.
MARTIN: But you check the immigration status of everybody you bring in custody?
Sheriff JENKINS: Everybody. Everybody that walks into our detention center for central booking for processing is checked in the same identical manner, yes, ma'am.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins and America's Voice Executive Director Frank Sharry about immigration policy, specifically, a program allowing state and local law enforcement agencies to support or enforce federal immigration policy.
Let's broaden it out just a bit, if we can. Sheriff Jenkins, in February, President Obama was interviewed by the Spanish language radio host El Piolin. And he had this to say about immigration reform.
President BARACK OBAMA: We need to get started working on it now. It's going to take some time to, you know, move that forward. But I'm very committed to making it happen, and we're going to be convening leadership on this issue so that we can start getting that legislation drawn up over the next several months.
MARTIN: Sheriff, overall, do you consider your department's participation in this program a welcome opportunity to support federal immigration efforts? Or do you consider, in a way, a failure that you're doing this because the federal government has not done its job?
Sheriff JENKINS: No, I think it's very easy to make the argument that the federal government has failed. I see this is as truly - local law enforcement does have a role. Now, you could argue what our role is, but I simply say that it is a part of enforcing the laws. Now, whether or not you politically agree with President Obama or what he says in that broad statement, it's really hard to read.
I seriously think that a lot of our problems, again, attributed to crime, both across the country, regionally and in this immediate area, in this region of Maryland and the metro area, I think could be attributed to the unchecked flow of illegals. And no not only to our southern states, we've arrested people who are in this country illegally from all parts of the world.
MARTIN: Frank, what's your take...
Sheriff JENKINS: Frankly, I just don't see where someone is in this country illegally, and they break the law and get a free pass. I don't believe that's right.
MARTIN: Okay. Frank Sharry, what's your take on this?
Mr. SHARRY: Well, the academic studies that have looked at the rate of crime and incarcerations are very emphatic on the point that native-born are more likely to participate in crime and end up in prison than undocumented immigrants, particularly when it comes to serious criminal activity. There has been a real up-spike in the number of immigrants who have been arrested for immigration offences, which is, from our point of view, a misdirection of policy.
Look, President Obama is right. This is a problem that has to be fixed at the national level. Local governments can help, but they can't solve it. What we need is Congress and the White House to work together to fashion a comprehensive overhaul that will make sure that the people here are legal, that the hiring is legal, that unscrupulous employers don't get an advantage by taking - by abusing scared and exploitable undocumented workers, that everyone's paying their fair share of taxes and that we have a legal system that the public can have confidence in. That's the heart of comprehensive immigration law.
MARTIN: And Frank, finally, just very briefly, what about Sheriff Jenkins' point - if you're in this country illegally, why shouldn't you be held accountable if you break the law in some other way?
Mr. SHARRY: I think you should. I think those who violate our criminal law should be held to account. And if those who do so are here illegally, they should be subject to deportation. But, in addition, if we're going to solve the fact that we have 12 million people here, most of whom are hardworking members of families who are trying to create better lives for themselves, are we going to deport them? I don't think so.
Are we going to harass them so that they leave? I don't think we should. Can we have a fix that allows these folks to get on the right side of the law at the same time we make sure we don't reproduce the problem of millions of people in our country illegally? That's what comprehensive immigration reform can do, and I think President Obama will move on it this fall.
MARTIN: Okay. We're going to have to leave it there for now. Sheriff, we gave you the first word, so we're going to give Frank the last word. Frank Sharry is the executive director of America's Voice, that's an organization that favors comprehensive immigration reform. He was kind enough to join us from our New York bureau.
Sheriff Chuck Jenkins is the sheriff of the Frederick County, Maryland Sheriff's Department. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Frederick County. Gentleman, I thank you both so much.
Mr. SHARRY: Thank you.
Sheriff JENKINS: Thank you.
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