ICE Officials Set Quotas to Deport More Illegal Immigrants

Spencer S. Hsu and Andrew Becker, Washington Post, March 30, 2010

Seeking to reverse a steep drop in deportations, U.S. immigration authorities have set controversial new quotas for agents. At the same time, officials have stepped back from an Obama administration commitment to focus enforcement efforts primarily on illegal immigrants who are dangerous or have violent criminal backgrounds.

The moves, outlined in internal documents and a recent e-mail by a senior U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official to field directors nationwide, differ from pledges by ICE chief John T. Morton and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, to focus enforcement on the most dangerous illegal immigrants. That approach represented a break from the mass factory raids and neighborhood sweeps the Bush administration used to drive up arrests.

In a Feb. 22 memo, James M. Chaparro, head of ICE detention and removal operations, wrote that, despite record deportations of criminals, the overall number of removals was down. While ICE was on pace to achieve “the Agency goal of 150,000 criminal alien removals” for the year ending Sept. 30, total deportations were set to barely top 310,000, “well under the Agency’s goal of 400,000,” and nearly 20 percent behind last year’s total of 387,000, he wrote.

Beyond stating ICE enforcement goals in unusually explicit terms, Chaparro laid out how the agency would pump up the numbers: by increasing detention space to hold more illegal immigrants while they await deportation proceedings; by sweeping prisons and jails to find more candidates for deportation and offering early release to those willing to go quickly; and, most controversially, with a “surge” in efforts to catch illegal immigrants whose only violation was lying on immigration or visa applications or reentering the United States after being deported.

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ICE spokesman Brian P. Hale distanced the agency from Chaparro’s remarks, saying, “Portions of the memo were inconsistent with ICE, inconsistent with the administration’s point of view and inconsistent with the secretary.” {snip}

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An immigration official said deportations are falling mainly because the focus on criminals has added a complication: It takes an average of 45 days to deport criminals, compared with 11 days for non-criminals, creating a shortage of detention beds. The number of beds was also limited because costs were higher than Congress expected, the official said.

Deportations of convicted criminals climbed 19 percent in 2009 and are on pace to climb 40 percent this year, while deportations of non-criminal illegal immigrants fell 3 percent and are on pace to drop 33 percent this year, agency officials said.

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“For ICE leadership, it’s not about keeping the community safe. It’s all about chasing this 400,000 number,” said Chris Crane, spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees Council 118, which represents ICE workers.

Since November, ICE field offices in Northern California, Dallas and Chicago have issued new evaluation standards and work plans for enforcement agents who remove illegal immigrants from jails and prisons. In some cases, for example, the field offices are requiring that agents process an average of 40 to 60 cases a month to earn “excellent” ratings.

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A coalition of immigrant rights groups Tuesday demanded the ouster of the nation’s top immigration official, charging that underlings at Immigration and Customs Enforcement were thwarting Obama administration policy by setting a quota on deportations.

“The reality is that ICE has gone rogue and needs to be reined in with dramatic action,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Community Change. “The agency charged with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws is systematically deceiving the president and the American public.”

The accusations followed a weekend report in the Washington Post about a Feb. 22 memo from a top ICE official lamenting that the pace of deportations was falling behind a goal of 400,000 annually. The memo also outlined policy changes to turn around the trend.

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The activists said the agency memo was “a clear violation” of previous statements by Morton that his agency did not set deportation quotas and diverts from the administration’s stated position that it would focus deportation efforts on undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes.

After the Post report, which was produced in collaboration with the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting, Morton released a statement saying the memo had been “withdrawn and corrected.”

The statement also said the memo was issued by another official without Morton’s authorization.

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In Los Angeles, immigrant advocates also denounced the memo as a betrayal of promises made by the Obama administration that enforcement actions would focus on criminals and exploitative employers. Instead, they said, the majority of those being picked up are immigrants with families, jobs and no criminal backgrounds.

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The memo, from the head of the deportation section of ICE, noted that deportations of undocumented immigrants overall were lagging behind expectations, even though deportations of criminals were on the rise.

The memo said noncriminal removals averaged 437 a day, which would result in an annual total of 159,740–less than half of the 400,000 quota.

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