Study Questions Use, Cost of Deportation Program

March 23, 2010

A program in which local law enforcement agencies refer immigrants who are in the country illegally to federal enforcers is resulting mostly in deportation of people arrested for minor offenses.

So say authors of a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who reviewed data from 2007 to 2009 provided by sheriff’s offices in five North Carolina counties participating in the federal program: Alamance, Cabarrus, Gaston, Mecklenburg and Wake. Those counties made data available for the study.

The authors say the program was intended to prioritize policing serious and violent crimes, but that the study showed implementation has not followed these priorities. They ask if money for the program might be better spent on other crime-fighting efforts and add that their findings debunk the myth that increased immigration means higher crime rates.

“The study found that the majority of unauthorized immigrants are deported for driving-related offenses, not serious or violent crimes,” wrote researchers Hannah Gill, Ph.D., assistant director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas, and Mai Nguyen, Ph.D., assistant professor in UNC’s city and regional planning department in the College of Arts and Sciences. Gill also is a research associate at UNC’s Center for Global Initiatives.

The authors will present the study March 26 in a free public conference at UNC held by the Latino Migration Project. The project, sponsored by UNC’s Institute for the Study of the Americas and Center for Global Initiatives, seeks to understand the impact and implications of the expanding Latin American presence in North Carolina. For more on the conference, “Latin American Migration: Transnational Perspectives, Regional Realities,” visit

The study is available for downloading at

The federal program, called 287(g), is carried out through partnerships between local law enforcement agencies nationwide and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the federal Department of Homeland Security. 287(g) refers to the section in federal law that authorizes it, which originated with amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act that Congress passed in 1996.

When someone is arrested, one screening question is whether the person was born in the United States. If the answer is no, deputies send their fingerprints through an ICE database. In moments, deputies can learn whether the arrestee is in the country illegally.

Gill and Nguyen found that of everyone booked through 287(g) from 2007-2009 in the study counties, 86.7 percent were charged with misdemeanors and 13.3 percent with felonies.

“The ICE Web site states that the program gives local agencies resources to ‘pursue investigations relating to violent crimes, human smuggling, gang/organized crime activity, sexual-related offenses, narcotics smuggling and money laundering,’” said Gill. “Data from this study show that local law enforcement agencies adopting the program in North Carolina do not share these priorities, but instead focus on minor crimes.”

The Web site also says that 287(g) is intended to be used with foreign-born criminals and immigration violators who pose a threat to national security or public safety.

Whether an illegal immigrant being held on domestic charges is allowed to post bail and be released pending trial is handled by ICE on a case-by-case basis.

Upon being arrested, illegal immigrants are given the option of signing a statement in which they agree to voluntary deportation. “It is their choice, but they’re also making a choice without a lot of information,” said Nguyen. “These people don’t understand our legal system.”

Other North Carolina agencies participating in 287(g) are the Durham Police Department and the Guilford and Henderson county sheriff’s departments. Nguyen and Gill lauded Durham police for applying 287(g) only to felons.

The study authors calculated first-year costs for Alamance and Mecklenburg counties, at $4.8 million and $5.5 million, respectively. Those costs include local officers’ salaries and their ICE training “to enforce immigration law,” its Web site says. Training is for four weeks at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, ICE Academy, in Charleston, S.C.

“What we’re finding is that taxpayers pay for all of it, regardless of whether it’s at the federal or the local level,” Gill said.

A second study finding is that, contrary to what some believe, crime doesn’t increase along with immigration into an area. In Mecklenburg, for example, the number of Hispanic residents grew from 6,051 in 1990 to 79, 253 in 2006.

“Violent crime actually fell during this time,” Gill said.

The two-year study, “The 287(g) Program: The Costs and Consequences of Local Immigration Enforcement in North Carolina Communities,” was paid for by the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and UNC units including the Institute for the Study of the Americas, Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development, Center for Global Initiatives and city and regional planning department.

ICE 287(g) fact sheet:

Copies: For a free copy of the study, contact Gill at or (919) 962-5453
Note: Nguyen (pronounced NOO-in) can be reached at or (919) 962-4762.

College of Arts and Sciences contact: Dee Reid, (919) 843-6339,