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Obama Quietly Shifts Immigration Enforcement Emphasis to Dangerous Criminals

The new strategy isn't pleasing activists on either side of the issue.

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"Everything is being driven away from arresting people just for being here illegally or low-level criminals," said a supervisory ICE agent who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from his superiors. "They're using 'cost savings' and the 'worst of the worst' as their justification. But to me and those inside, it's all politics. They want us to stay away from the illegals who are living and working here and not committing serious crimes until such time as they can get immigration reform passed."

The changes have also drawn complaints from immigration advocates, who say deportations under Obama have reached record highs and that the immigrants who remain behind are still living in limbo, without work permits, Social Security cards or driver's licenses.

"This isn't a free ticket," said Raed Gonzalez, one of the Houston-area attorneys whose clients' cases were dropped last month. "This is termination without prejudice, which means that the government can put them back into proceedings at any time."

People close to the administration acknowledge that the new strategy doesn't please activists on either side of the immigration debate. But they say it's the best Obama can do without immigration reform legislation from Congress.

In an interview with ProPublica, Morton, the ICE director, said the administration's strategy will lead to smarter enforcement, not softer enforcement. Given that there are now more than 10 million people in the country illegally and that a record amount of money is being spent on immigration enforcement in an era of unprecedented budget deficits, he said it makes sense to target people who pose the biggest threat to public safety or national security.

"Congress provides enough money to deport a little less than 400,000 people and in an era of limited resources, who should those 400,000 be?" Morton said. "My perspective is those 400,000 people shouldn't be the first 400,000 people in the door but rather 400,000 people who reflect some considered government enforcement policy based on a rational set of objectives and priorities."

Deportations have increased dramatically in recent years, from 189,000 in 2001 to 387,000 in 2009. Much of that increase has been accomplished by doing what the administration is now trying to avoid: deporting large numbers of people who haven't committed serious crimes.


Note: The number for 2010 is through July 22. Source: Department of Homeland Security

Note: The number for 2010 is through July 22. Source: Department of Homeland Security


This year, however, that trend has taken a sharp turn, according to  a report released in July by TRAC, a Syracuse University program that gathers and analyzes government data. While more than half of the people being held for deportation haven't committed crimes, the percentage of those who have rose from 27 percent to 43 percent this year.


Source: TRAC, Syracuse University

Source: TRAC, Syracuse University


The number of criminal immigrants removed by ICE "has already broken all previous records, and climbed to an all-time high," according to the report. "The removal pace of criminal aliens in FY 2010 is fully 60 percent higher than in the last year of the Bush administration, and at least a third (37%) higher than in the first year of the Obama administration."

The administration's new strategy -- including many of its key points and phrases -- echoes  a February 2009 report (PDF) by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit research center, which produced it in hopes that the administration might use it as a blueprint for its enforcement strategy.

"What they've done is what any good law enforcement agency does," said Donald Kerwin, who co-authored the 2009 report with Doris Meissner, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service under President Bill Clinton. "They can always jack up the numbers but does it have any impact? And the answer is no, it doesn't."

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