WASHINGTON - The Obama administration has signed up 55 state and local law enforcement agencies to help enforce immigration laws, including an Arizona county sheriff under investigation for racial profiling, the Homeland Security Department announced Friday.
Another 12 agreements have been approved and are awaiting local or state approval.
The administration had previously suspended the program, which critics say was mismanaged and allowed racial profiling and discrimination. Before it was suspended, there had been 66 local and state agencies participating.
Under the new agreement, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies will be able to check whether inmates in the Maricopa County jail are in the country legally. But they will not be given the power to arrest immigration violators as they had previously, said John Morton, the assistant homeland security secretary who oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
As the federal government moved to limit the sheriff's powers, he launched a crime and immigration sweep in the Phoenix area.
Morton said he would treat Arpaio's sheriff's office like any other law enforcement agency when the sheriff contacts ICE to turn over people he has rounded up and evaluate each case on its merits. Arpaio was allowed to continue in the program because it has been changed to add more accountability and oversight and focuses on the deportation of criminal offenders, Morton said.
"They identify and remove in partnership with us a very large number of serious criminal offenders that protect the public safety in Arizona," Morton said. "We determined his sweeps were not consistent with the priorities of the revised program."
Many immigration and civil rights advocates continue to criticize the program. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has asked Obama to end it. Others say it is needed to reduce illegal immigration.
Many lawmakers, including the chairman of the House panel that approves the Homeland Security Department's budget, have pressured ICE to deport more immigrant criminal offenders.
The continuation of the "287(g) program" with some changes is reflective of the administration's approach to immigration enforcement thus far. The Homeland Security Department has reworked some Bush administration policies and programs by adding more oversight and trying to prevent civil rights abuses. But they have tread carefully to avoid appearing to weaken or abandon enforcement.
"We are not trying to suggest if you are here unlawfully, or here unlawfully and committing minor crimes, you are not going to be subject to removal from the U.S.," Morton said.
Four local and state law enforcement agencies decided against renewing their 287(g) agreements and two withdrew their applications. They are the sheriff's offices of Brevard and Manatee counties in Florida; Framingham, Mass. police department; Cumberland County, N.C. sheriff's office; Mesquite, Nev. police department and Houston Police Department.
Associated Press writer Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix contributed to this report.