PHOENIX -- A U.S. government program empowering local police officers to enforce immigration laws undermines their efforts to maintain public safety, according to a report released on Wednesday.
Around 11.9 million mostly Hispanic illegal immigrants live and work in the United States, and Americans are sharply divided over what to do with them.
The report by the nonpartisan Police Foundation criticized aspects of the 287 (g) program run by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which deputizes officers from local police agencies to enforce immigration laws.
The study, drawing on input from focus groups and police and community representatives, argued that the program created mistrust between local police and immigrant communities.
"The cornerstone of the police operation is public safety, and that is eroded significantly when people are afraid of the police," Hubert Williams, the president of the Police Foundation, said by telephone.
"Immigration enforcement (by local agencies) ... has simply caused people to run and hide. They won't talk to the police," he added.
More than 60 agencies take part in the 287 (g) program. It is credited by ICE with identifying thousands of people, mostly held in U.S. jails, who are suspected of being in the country illegally.
The report said the program diverted participating agencies' scarce resources, and exposed them to increased liability and litigation.
It recommended that police participating in the program should be limited to investigating serious criminal offenders and conducting jail-based programs.
President Barack Obama has pledged to push comprehensive immigration reform, including tougher border controls and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as early as this year.
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