What Happens When Immigration Enforcement Goes Local?

Roughly one-quarter of the 44 million immigrants residing in the United States lack legal status, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 estimations. Between 2001 and 2016, about five million immigrants were collectively deported by the Bush and Obama administrations. Professor Monica Varsanyi’s book, Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines, co-authored with Doris Marie Provine, Paul G. Lewis, and Scott H. Decker, examines the new “patchwork of local immigration policing” partially responsible for these soaring deportation statistics. Varsanyi is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and at The Graduate Center, CUNY.

Until the mid-1990s, immigration enforcement was handled primarily by the federal government and concentrated in border areas. Then, in 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act made immigrants subject to deportation if they committed minor offenses and authorized state and local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

To understand which localities were signing on and why, Varsanyi and her collaborators conducted three national surveys of local law enforcement executives as well as case studies of seven cities. Cities with large immigrant populations or recent surges in immigration exhibited a low interest in immigration enforcement, largely because it diluted resources and threatened community policing, a social justice‒oriented model of policing that emphasizes partnerships and problem solving. “More immigration actually equals less enforcement,” Varsanyi says. “Police know the public safety mandate is really challenged if they don’t have cooperation from immigrant communities.”

The areas that responded positively to immigration enforcement tended to skew rural and Republican.

Despite the inconsistent reception, legislation such as the Secure Communities program, which transfers enforcement power to local entities, continued to pass.

But discretion cannot be left up to individual officers, Varsanyi argues, for what often follows is racially biased policing and broken trust. “Community policing needs to remain an important part of the law enforcement toolbox,” she maintains. Amidst virulent immigration debates, Policing Immigrants advocates serious reforms to a system that “create[s] a space where democratic controls do not and cannot exist.”

Beyond SUM

Book Cover: 'Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines' by Monica Varsanyi, Doris Marie Provine, Paul G. Lewis, and Scott H. Decker
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Policing Immigrants: Local Law Enforcement on the Front Lines
University of Chicago Press, 2016

Work By
Monica Varsanyi (Professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Political Science) | Profile 1 | Profile 2

Colleges and Schools
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
The Graduate Center

Bonus Content
Immigration Enforcement: Whose Job Is it Anyway? (GC News)

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