PHOENIX - Around half of local police forces partnering in a federal immigration enforcement program are using it to arrest illegal immigrants for traffic and other small offenses rather than targeting dangerous criminals, according to a study released on Monday.
The report by the Migration Policy Institute think-tank reviewed implementation of the so-called 287-g agreement, a government program that allows at least 71 participating state and local police agencies to enforce immigration law.
President Barack Obama's administration has said that the program is primarily targeted at identifying and deporting "dangerous criminals," although the study found that half the activity involved immigrants, both legal and illegal, arrested for misdemeanor or traffic offenses.
"Some jurisdictions operate highly 'targeted' versions of the program, aimed primarily at identifying serious criminal offenders, while others pursue more 'universal' enforcement strategies designed to detain and remove as many unauthorized immigrants as possible," the report found.
There are nearly 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, and the issue of what to do with the shadow population is a highly divisive issue for Americans.
Obama backs comprehensive immigration reform, tightening border and workplace enforcement, while giving millions of illegal immigrants a shot a legal status, although Democrats' efforts have been blocked in the U.S. Congress by Republicans, most of whom favor enforcement only.
The deadlock over immigration has led to stepped up activity at the state level, where a growing number of Republicans are pushing initiatives cracking down on illegal immigration and targeting birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants.
The study highlighted inconsistencies in the implementation of the program, which is used by participating police forces both to screen non-citizens held in jail for serious crimes, and to crackdown on those who committed minor crimes.
It found that a more 'universal' implementation of the 287-g program are particularly concentrated in the southeastern states, including North Carolina, which has seen a short increase in Hispanic immigration in recent years.
The southeast accounted for the 10 jurisdictions with the largest share of detentions for traffic violators.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Greg McCune)