Staff shortage, fewer inmates lead Mass. sheriff to end ICE program

The staff trained in the program and the jail population have halved since the agreement began in 2017


By Joe Difazio and Wheeler Cowperthwaite
The Patriot Ledger
        
PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Plymouth County Sheriff Joe McDonald is ending an information-sharing agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that allowed corrections officers to inform the federal agency about inmates suspected of immigration violations.

The 287(g) program and agreement is part of a 1996 federal law that allows corrections officers to perform some tasks of federal ICE agents, such as interviewing inmates suspected of immigration violations about their citizenship status, serving arrest warrants and preparing charging documents for immigration violations.

The sheriff's department said it's ending the agreement because the staff trained in the program and the jail population have halved since the agreement began in 2017.

The Plymouth County jail will continue to hold federal inmates at the request of ICE and other agencies.
The Plymouth County jail will continue to hold federal inmates at the request of ICE and other agencies. (Greg Derr/The Patriot Ledger)

"We're not in the position to continue with it," said John Birtwell, a spokesman for the sheriff's department. "We had four staff trained to it and two retired."

McDonald, in an interview with WATD on Friday, said the program allowed his staff to access an ICE database to check whether detainees at the Plymouth jail who self-identified as foreign-born were wanted by ICE. He said ending the controversial program wasn't a political decision or caused by outside pressure.

"We're having a difficult time refilling staff positions that retire," McDonald told WATD. "We just don't have the staffing or the wherewithal to keep it going."

Birtwell said the program was well-intentioned but has become more partisan over time.

In the first year and a half of the program, more than 5,500 inmates were processed by the Plymouth County jail, with 355 having been cross-checked with ICE and five deported.

"It was not a high-yield operation," Birtwell said. "The people deported had been accused of fairly serious or very serious felonies."

Birtwell said the program would end for the foreseeable future, but the sheriff's office might be open to restarting it at some point.

McDonald previously told The Patriot Ledger the program is reactive. When someone is booked into the jail and tells staff they were not born in the country, one of the deputies trained in the program could search the federal database. Most of the time, the person didn't surface on the database, he said.

"We're not out there shaking the trees, hunting down people, taking them into custody," McDonald said in July. "We only do this when they're brought into the correctional facility for some other criminal offense."

The jail will continue to hold federal inmates at the request of ICE and other agencies such as the U.S. Marshals Service.

Advocates for immigrants have long argued that 287(g) agreements threaten public safety and civil liberties. Legislation filed on Beacon Hill this year calls for ending the use of 287(g) agreements in Massachusetts.

With the Plymouth County Sheriff's Office bowing out of the program, it leaves only two other agencies in Massachusetts participating in 287(g): The state Department of Correction and the Barnstable County Sheriff's Office.

©2021 www.patriotledger.com.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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