Marc R. Rosenblum Specialist in Immigration Policy
William A. Kandel Analyst in Immigration Policy
Congress has a long-standing interest in seeing that immigration enforcement agencies identify and deport serious criminal aliens. The expeditious removal of such aliens has been a statutory priority since 1986, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its predecessor agency have operated programs targeting criminal aliens for removal since 1988. These programs have grown substantially since FY2005.
Despite the interest in criminal aliens, inconsistencies in data quality, data collection, and definitions make it impossible to precisely enumerate the criminal alien population, defined in this report as all noncitizens ever convicted of a crime. CRS estimates the number of noncitizens incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails—a subset of all criminal aliens—at 173,000 in 2009, with state prisons and local jails accounting for somewhat more incarcerations than federal prisons. The overall proportion of noncitizens in federal and state prisons and local jails corresponds closely to the proportion of noncitizens in the total U.S. population.
DHS operates four programs designed in whole or in part to target criminal aliens: the Criminal Alien Program (CAP), Secure Communities, the § 287(g) program, and the National Fugitive Operations Program (NFOP). The CAP, Secure Communities, and certain § 287(g) programs are jail enforcement programs that screen individuals for immigration-related violations as they are being booked into jail and while they are incarcerated; the NFOP and some other § 287(g) programs are task force programs that target at-large criminal aliens. This report describes how these programs work and identifies their common features and key differences among them.
While consensus exists on the overarching goal to identify and remove serious criminal aliens, these programs have generated controversy, particularly Secure Communities and the § 287(g) program. On one hand, the Obama Administration and other supporters of jail enforcement programs see them as efficient and even-handed ways to identify criminal aliens. The Administration has taken steps to strengthen and expand Secure Communities and plans to implement the program in every law enforcement jurisdiction in the country by 2013. On the other hand, some lawmakers and advocacy groups have raised concerns that Secure Communities and the § 287(g) program have not been narrowly targeted at serious criminal offenders and that the programs may have adverse impacts on police-community relations, may result in racial profiling, and may result in the detention of people who have not been convicted of criminal offenses and may not be subject to removal.
Disagreements about the merits of jail enforcement programs overlap with a separate set of questions about the role of states and localities in immigration enforcement. These jurisdictional questions have focused in particular on Secure Communities, in part because the Administration initially appeared to present it as a discretionary program but now takes the position that states and localities may not “opt out” of Secure Communities.
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