Immigration Enforcement:

Controls over Program Authorizing State and Local Enforcement of Federal Immigration Laws Should Be Strengthened

GAO-09-381T: Published: Mar 4, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 4, 2009.

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Richard M. Stana
(202) 512-8816


Office of Public Affairs
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This testimony discusses the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) management of the 287(g) program. Recent reports indicate that the total population of unauthorized aliens residing in the United States is about 12 million. Some of these aliens have committed one or more crimes, although the exact number of aliens that have committed crimes is unknown. Some crimes are serious and pose a threat to the security and safety of communities. ICE does not have the agents or the detention space that would be required to address all criminal activity committed by unauthorized aliens. Thus, state and local law enforcement officers play a critical role in protecting our homeland because, during the course of their daily duties, they may encounter foreign-national criminals and immigration violators who pose a threat to national security or public safety. On September 30, 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was enacted and added section 287(g) to the Immigration and Nationality Act. This section authorizes the federal government to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, and to train selected state and local officers to perform certain functions of an immigration officer--under the supervision of ICE officers--including searching selected federal databases and conducting interviews to assist in the identification of those individuals in the country illegally. The first such agreement under the statute was signed in 2002, and as of February 2009, 67 state and local agencies were participating in this program. The testimony today is based on our January 30, 2009, report regarding the program including selected updates made in February 2009. Like the report, this statement addresses (1) the extent to which Immigration and Customs Enforcement has designed controls to govern 287(g) program implementation and (2) how program resources are being used and the activities, benefits, and concerns reported by participating agencies. To do this work, we interviewed officials from both ICE and participating agencies regarding program implementation, resources, and results. We also reviewed memorandums of agreement (MOA) between ICE and the 29 law enforcement agencies participating in the program as of September 1, 2007, that are intended to outline the activities, resources, authorities, and reports expected of each agency. We also compared the controls ICE designed to govern implementation of the 287(g) program with criteria in GAO's Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), and the Project Management Institute's Standard for Program Management. More detailed information on our scope and methodology appears in the January 30, 2009 report. In February 2009, we also obtained updated information from ICE regarding the number of law enforcement agencies participating in the 287(g) program as well as the number of additional law enforcement agencies being considered for participation in the program. We conducted our work in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

In summary, ICE has designed some management controls, such as MOAs with participating agencies and background checks of officers applying to participate in the program, to govern 287(g) program implementation. However, the program lacks other key internal controls. Specifically, program objectives have not been documented in any program-related materials, guidance on how and when to use program authority is inconsistent, guidance on how ICE officials are to supervise officers from participating agencies has not been developed, data that participating agencies are to track and report to ICE has not been defined, and performance measures to track and evaluate progress toward meeting program objectives have not been developed. Taken together, the lack of internal controls makes it difficult for ICE to ensure that the program is operating as intended. ICE and participating agencies used program resources mainly for personnel, training, and equipment, and participating agencies reported activities and benefits, such as a reduction in crime and the removal of repeat offenders. However, officials from more than half of the 29 state and local law enforcement agencies we reviewed reported concerns members of their communities expressed about the use of 287(g) authority for minor violations and/or about racial profiling. We made several recommendations to strengthen internal controls for the 287(g) program to help ensure that the program operates as intended. DHS concurred with our recommendations and reported plans and steps taken to address them.

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