The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office recently extended its agreement with federal immigration authorities that allows deputies to check the citizenship status of people booked into the parish jail — part of a nationwide program that critics say creates a climate of fear within immigrant communities and erodes their trust in local law enforcement. 

In 2017 the sheriff's office became the first agency in Louisiana to enter into a 287(g) agreement with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Now two other parishes — Ouachita and Terrebonne — have also signed on, joining a relatively small group of fewer than 100 agencies nationwide. 

Most of those agreements operate the same as the one in East Baton Rouge, which allows some local law enforcement officers to fulfill duties otherwise assigned to ICE agents, though their jurisdiction is limited to inmates of local jails.

071819 ICE arrests in BR

Federal officials say the program streamlines the removal of people living in the United States illegally who are facing serious criminal charges or convictions, such as gang members, sex offenders and murderers. Proponents also say it allows ICE agents to take a more targeted approach and avoid larger scale immigration sweeps. 

Some Baton Rouge residents, however, have expressed heightened concern in recent months that Hispanics within the community are being targeted as crime victims because they're often afraid to call police. 

Opponents of the 287(g) program say it serves to deepen those fears as immigrants worry that any interaction with law enforcement could place them or their relatives under the microscope, especially given the national rhetoric surrounding immigration. President Donald Trump has sought to expand the program during his presidency, arguing it will enhance public safety. 

"The sheriff's number one priority should be protecting our residents, and these agreements do the opposite," said Rosa Gómez-Herrin, director of racial justice programs with the nonprofit Foundation for Louisiana. "They threaten to violate our constitutional rights, increase racial profiling, and discourage witnesses and survivors of crimes from coming forward — compromising the safety of the entire community."

East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said there's misinformation circulating about the program and she emphasized the narrow scope of their 287(g) agreement, which "starts and stops at the prison. It does not apply in the community."

Law enforcement officers will often ask for identification when taking witness statements, but people have the right to remain anonymous or decline to provide photo ID. There are also federal programs that allow undocumented crime victims to obtain either temporary or permanent legal status, particularly for victims of violent crime who agree to cooperate with police and prosecutors.  

Hicks said deputies can't even check someone's immigration status until that person has been arrested and booked into jail on unrelated counts. They then notify ICE if the suspect is found in violation of immigration laws. But even if an inmate is undocumented, authorities said, the seriousness of the offense is considered when determining whether to begin deportation proceedings. 

Hicks said a minuscule percentage of the parish's inmates are affected by the program, which increases efficiency within the jail. She said that prior to 287(g) being implemented, "the outcome would most likely have been the same, just with the research carried out by an ICE agent" who was stationed part time at the jail. 

But federal immigration data show that the number of ICE arrests in East Baton Rouge — which indicate violations of federal immigration laws but don't necessarily result in deportations — have seen a notable increase since the agreement took effect in May 2017. Immigration arrests here almost tripled from 59 in 2016 to 150 in 2018, according to ICE data that's made public online. 

"Racial profiling is a problem," said Lena Graber, staff attorney at the national Immigrant Legal Resource Center. "What it means is that police … have immigration on the brain and start to pick out people. That changes the way they conduct their policing."

Hicks said she couldn't comment on the ICE arrest numbers but also noted that some of the arrests could have resulted in ICE action outside the jail, which would have nothing to do with the sheriff's office or its 287(g) agreement. 

The Foundation for Louisiana and other members of the Baton Rouge Immigrants' Rights Coalition, a group of local individuals and organizations, collected more than 400 signatures on a petition asking East Baton Rouge Sheriff Sid Gautreaux to end the 287(g) agreement when it expired June 30. The letter, which was presented to Gautreaux in May, lists several reasons its signatories believe the program is detrimental, primarily the alleged negative impacts for public safety. 

"You and your team have worked hard to build trust and a spirit of cooperation with the many diverse communities that compose EBR Parish," the letter says. "We all know the vital role that immigrants, many undocumented, played in rebuilding the Baton Rouge area after the August 2016 floods. Our immigrant sisters and brothers are working hard to raise their families and pay their bills."

Meredith Stewart, a senior supervising attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, also noted that when immigrants become fearful of authorities, that wariness can permeate into other important aspects of their lives, making them less likely to seek healthcare or send their children to school in some cases. 

Hicks adamantly denies the argument that the agreement is evidence that Gautreaux doesn't have the best interests of the immigrant community in mind.

"It is upsetting that there's so much misinformation out there, and it only hinders law enforcement's relationship with the community by causing unnecessary fear and misplaced trust," Hicks said in an email. "Our priority is crime and safety. We want to get dangerous criminals off the streets and to do that we need the cooperation of the community. To this end, we work very hard to bridge the gap between law enforcement and all community demographics."

Data tracked by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center show that at least 90 jurisdictions across 20 states have current 287(g) agreements — the majority of which were signed during the Trump administration. Another 21 jurisdictions used to participate in the program but have since ended their agreements.

The East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office renewed its agreement for one year, but advocates noted the agency could choose to terminate it at any time. 

"That's why our campaign isn't over," Gómez-Herrin said. "We're still building more support and more power because this issue isn't going away."


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.