Abstract: Analyzing Immigration Enforcement in the 21st Century: Social Justice Implications of Sub-Federal Immigration Enforcement (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

432P Analyzing Immigration Enforcement in the 21st Century: Social Justice Implications of Sub-Federal Immigration Enforcement

Saturday, January 15, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Hannah Boyke, MSW, Doctoral Student, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Pilar Horner, PhD, Associate Professor, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Background and Purpose:

Since September 11, 2001, immigration enforcement has been reorganized into the criminal justice enforcement system. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) intensified collaboration with local police departments negatively impacts immigrants’ mental and physical health, economic security, and sense of safety. This literature review synthesizes research concerning local police involvement in immigration enforcement and identifies the methodological issues in defining and operationalizing enforcement practices. Specifically, challenges emerge through the aggregation of enforcement practices when analyzing data and reporting study results, which obscures the ambiguity of enforcement policy and practices at the city, county, and state levels.


Forty-four scholarly, peer-reviewed, empirical journal articles were analyzed. The sample includes nineteen quantitative, seventeen qualitative, and six mixed-methods studies. Journal articles were sampled through seven database searches, conducted through Nexis Uni, JSTOR, Social Sciences Full Text, Social Services Abstracts, Taylor and Francis, Criminal Justice Database, and PAIS International. Search parameters restricted the date of publication to 2008 through August 2020. Search terms included immigration, immigrants, police, policing, Secure Communities, sanctuary cities, federal, local, and illegal alien. Initial database searches yielded 577 studies. Law and literature reviews, book chapters, editorials, and book reviews were excluded. Guided by Crotty’s (1998) framework, a multi-stage iterative coding process and axial coding were used to identify themes and subthemes among the sampled articles. Meetings were held throughout the coding process to compare emergent themes and assess inter-rater reliability of coding schema.


Empirical research identified five local-level domains related to enforcement outcomes: 1) racial composition of community, government, and law enforcement; 2) political party affiliation of local community, government, and sheriff’s department; 3) funding structures of government and law enforcement agencies; 4) law enforcement agencies’ formal agreements with ICE; and 5) community-based immigrant advocacy groups. Twelve studies—two mixed methods, two quantitative, and eight qualitative studies—identified low-level encounters with law enforcement, such as traffic stops, as a mechanism for immigration enforcement.

Importantly, the operationalization of immigration enforcement lacked sufficient precision. Quantitative and mixed-methods studies operationalized local-level immigration enforcement at various levels of specificity. For example, enforcement was measured through signed 287(g) agreements, immigration checks by police, police attitudes toward enforcement, and jail or prison participation immigration detention. Studies often aggregated enforcement practices for data analysis—combining ambiguous measures of enforcement, such as state level punitive immigration policy, with more specific and direct mechanisms of enforcement, such as signed 287(g) agreements. However, ten qualitative studies explicated the contradictory and conflicting policies at the state, county, and local levels of government and law enforcement. No quantitative study examined the impact of such diverging policies on enforcement outcomes.

Conclusions and Implications:

This review demonstrates methodological barriers to measuring local police’s role in immigration enforcement. By combining incongruent measures of enforcement, research obscures the distinct types of enforcement and conflicting policy landscapes between cities, counties, and states. This review identifies potential measurements of enforcement to promote the precision and coherence extant literature.

Crotty, M. (1998). The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process. Sage Publications.