Las Vegas Police Department Blazes Its Own Path On Immigration Enforcement

By Jude Joffe-Block
February 04, 2011

Back in 2008, the Clark County sheriff made a controversial announcement. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had signed an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow local officers in the jail to identify unauthorized immigrants and put them in deportation proceedings. The program is called 287(g).

Local immigration attorney Vicenta Montoya immediately had questions.

“Who actually was being arrested, what were they being arrested for, how many people were being turned over to ICE custody, how many people were being deported?” Montoya remembers asking during a community meeting shortly after the program began.

Lt. Rich Forbus, who oversees the 287(g) program at the Clark County Detention Center, says he has always responded to those community concerns in the same way. “We are not replacing immigration customs,” he says. “Our agency uses this as a tool to identify people that are in the community who are serious offenders.”

At the Clark County Detention Center Forbus examines a clipboard listing all the foreign-born arrestees who came in the day before.

He says six people on the list were in the country illegally. Half were referred to ICE for deportation because they were arrested on felony drug charges, or because their record showed they had re-entered the country after being deported once. But the others included two DUI arrests, and someone accused of trespassing.

Photo by Jude Joffe-Block
A poster for the 287(g) program hangs in the Clark County Detention Center.

Those three were not sent to ICE custody.

Forbus says his agency doesn’t want to help deport people accused of minor offenses who do not have a criminal record. Plus, he’s following ICE’s mandate that 287(g) should focus on serious criminals. But a new report from the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute found the targeted approach in Las Vegas is unusual compared to the other 71 agencies that use the program nationwide.

“We find that ICE tolerates a high degree of ambiguity in priorities and variation in outcomes across 287(g) jurisdictions,” says Randy Capps, one of the authors of the report.

The report found that among agencies in Georgia, Tennessee and Maryland, the vast majority of people who wound up in deportation were arrested for minor crimes and traffic infractions, like driving without a license. But Capps says that sweeping approach is counter-productive and should be stopped.

“It's not worth it, it's a lot of money--a lot of federal money-- they spent 5 billion dollars last year just on detaining and removing people,” Capps says. “And it is a lot of adverse community impact and it does take away from prioritizing and focusing on the more serious criminals.”

But Jessica Vaughan at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors more immigration enforcement, says there is good reason why local agencies should help deport every undocumented person they come across.

“If you can remove them on the first or second minor offense, then you are sparing yourself all those future offenses, and you are sparing those future victims, and your sparing yourself the cost of constantly dealing with these people in the criminal justice system.”

Back at the Clark County Detention Center, Lt. Forbus says he gets criticism from all sides. Since the program began, nearly 3,000 illegal immigrants arrested in Las Vegas never made it to federal custody because their crimes were considered minor. Some say Forbus failed because he didn’t help deport everyone he could have, others say he shouldn’t be deporting anyone at all, or at least should wait until after immigrants are convicted of a crime in court.

“Discretion is heavy and that is where concern comes in from the public,” Forbus says. “But I think we've shown what we are doing in this program that we are using that discretion wisely and using this power wisely.”

Whether the focus of 287(g) should be on serious criminals or not, a bigger question has followed the program, and in fact the country’s broader discourse on immigration reform. And that is, what is the proper role of local police in federal immigration enforcement?