ICE Workplace Sweeps a Waste of Time and Money

I have spent the past year chasing Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) around the country. Every time ICE raided a factory to arrest undocumented workers, the National Immigrant Bond Fund I represent showed up to bail them out so that they could get their day in court.


The cat-and-mouse game taught me a lot about ICE, lessons that Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, the nominee to head Homeland Security, which includes ICE, should consider as she takes responsibility for our immigration laws.

The raids proved very expensive. ICE spent $5.2 million on a kosher-meat-packing-plant raid in Postville, Iowa, or about $14,000 per immigrant.

Added to this cost was ICE's unprecedented decision to prosecute the immigrants criminally rather than in immigration court. It meant millions of extra dollars spent on keeping the defendants in jail. Had the immigrants been tried in immigration courts, they would have been deported at little expense.

All told, ICE spent $1.6 billion last year on detention.

It is hard for ICE to be efficient when it moves so many people around. To stage a raid, hundreds of agents as well as judges, lawyers and prison officials must descend on often remote locations. After a raid, ICE herds hundreds of workers to distant prisons.

In a factory raid in New Bedford, Mass., ICE put 200 workers, shackled head to toe, on chartered airliners and flew them to Texas prisons at a cost of $200,000, only to fly 40 back at additional cost when they were granted release on bail.

For all this expense, taxpayers might expect that ICE caught some bad guys — terrorists or criminals posing a real threat to us. Alas, they found only workers, many undocumented but otherwise harmless.

If ICE were doing a good job at identifying bad guys, this would not be an issue. Increasingly, however, studies show that Homeland Security and ICE are not doing enough to protect us.

Recently, The Houston Chronicle found in an examination of Harris County jail records that ICE had missed hundreds of opportunities to deport convicted criminals.

Admittedly, ICE has become more efficient at deporting workers. It has perfected a kind of conveyer-belt justice where immigrants are first charged criminally, then assigned defense attorneys who convince them to give up their rights for a lesser punishment, after which they are shipped to prisons far from their communities. At peak performance, ICE can carry out the whole process in only 48 hours.

All of this represents administrative decisions taken by ICE, not laws.

This is good news. It means Napolitano, once confirmed, can oversee a new strategy without the need to go to Congress. Several changes should be at the top of her list:

• Focus on catching bad guys first. ICE's present tactics of highway checks, home searches and factory raids are too random to catch dangerous offenders. It should leave police work to the police and concentrate on providing them with the immigration information needed on those charged with crimes. The ICE photo-op for 2009 should be the perp walk of dangerous aliens, not the invasion of homes and factories.

• Keep immigration cases in the immigration courts. Federal law clearly makes illegal entry into our country a civil offense enforceable in immigration courts. By doing an end-run around this system when it charges immigrants with criminal identity fraud, ICE invites other countries to retaliate by bringing criminal charges against Americans abroad. It also raises the question why millions of Americans, especially students, who carry fake ID's for various purposes such as obtaining alcohol are not charged with the same crime.

• Don't ship immigrants to far-off jails. It's a basic inhumanity. Our justice system doesn't need help in securing convictions by isolating immigrants from family and community in order to force a plea. In a recession, it seems obscene to spend $200,000 just to fly arrested workers around the country.

As of this writing, ICE is loaded for bear. It has the budget, the game plan and the trained and dedicated agents to expand raids. At the same time Congress is too focused on the economic crisis to enact immigration reform. This makes it all the more urgent for new management at ICE to adopt administrative reforms to end the cruel excesses of the past year.


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