More than 500 immigrants’ rights and social justice organizations have sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking that he stop a controversial program whereby state and local police are allowed to participate in immigration enforcement policies.

The program to which the letter objects, called 287 (g), was created in 1996 as part of a piece of repressive anti-immigration legislation called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA). Although it became law under the Clinton administration, the Bush administration really pushed it. It allows the U.S. Agency for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.), to sign cooperation agreements with state, local and county police departments which provide immigration training enforcement for their officers and then permit those departments to hold people they stop for other reasons (often for trivial traffic offenses), and, if they have reason to believe they are undocumented immigrants or have otherwise fallen afoul of immigration laws, hand them over to I.C.E. for immigration action including, often, deportation.

There are currently about 63 police and correctional agencies with memorandum of agreement to participate in this program. Many of them are in areas where local politicians have been whipping up anti-immigrant feelings. These include Farmers Branch (Texas), Prince William County (Virginia), Herndon (Virginia) and Frederick (Maryland).

Since the 287 (g) program was started under the Bush administration, it has become the focus of complaints that it stimulated racial profiling and harassment of Latino, Asian and other minority people by local police.

This kind of harassment is not new. For as long as there has been undocumented immigration to this country (which means as long as there have been restrictive immigration laws), there have been police officers and other officials who have either been overzealous about stopping and arresting people who appear to be foreign, or have been corrupt and have harassed the foreign born by extorting bribes.

When this reporter lived, for many years, on the West Side of Chicago, I was always hearing stories, or reading about them in the local press, of immigrants being “shaken down” by Chicago or suburban police

In one notorious case, corrupt Chicago police officers made a nice living off shaking down undocumented Polish immigrants on the Northwest Side of the city. I also heard about cars containing Mexican immigrant workers traveling from inner city Latino neighborhoods to factories on the city’s outskirts being regularly stopped for imaginary or trivial reasons, so that the police officers could inquire into the drivers’ and passengers’ immigration status, and not let them go until money was paid.

The problem with 287 (g) is that it exacerbates these problems by making it legal for the police to question people on immigration status at the outset. Instead of just being rogue cops, they become deputized I.C.E. agents also.

A notorious example of the abuse of the 287 (g) program is the campaign of Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio against Latinos in his jurisdiction, which has involved Maricopa County police descending on small Latino communities to conduct sweeps to check everybody’s immigration status. Arpaio’s brutal treatment of people detained for immigration offenses is notorious.

Now the situation has become more urgent, because the Obama administration is signaling that a new immigration reform legislative package, which would legalize most of the undocumented, will not be finished until next year, and not this year as originally stated.

Immigrants’ rights advocates express disappointment, and say that if this is the case, there should be a moratorium or freeze on immigration enforcement actions except those aimed at drug dealers and other serious criminals. Their argument is that it makes no sense to be deporting people today, with all the disruption and heartache which that entails, who next year might have qualified for legalization and permanent residency in this country.

In a recent policy statement, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that she is having all police departments who now participate in 287 (g) sign new contracts which bind them to a more restrictive interpretation of who they can and can not stop, question and arrest. But she is also adding eleven new police departments to the program. Opponents of 287 (g) say that the new rules will not deter corrupt or racist police from abusing the program, and that adding more departments to the program now will make the problem so much worse.

The organizations’ letter, signed by Marielena Hincapie, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center, to Obama cites the fact that even many police and sheriffs’ departments do not like the program, and that a General Accounting Office report on it in March of this year was scathingly critical.

The letter concludes “We know that you are committed to tackling our nation’s most complex issues, for these reasons we ask that you examine the damaging impact of the 287 (g) program is having on immigrant communities across the country and terminate the program”.