Immigration Agents Are Going Rogue


by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Zaid Jilani, Andrea Nill, and Alex Seitz-Wald.

Last Friday, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a damning critique of the federal 287(g) program that deputizes local and state police to enforce immigration law after entering into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The OIG's report couldn't have come at a worse time for ICE officials. The week started with a leaked memo revealing that ICE issued deportation quotas for field officers, directly calling into question pledges made by the Obama administration to keep enforcement focused on criminals and abusive employers. Then, Texas Appleseed released a report indicating that the "incompetence" of mentally ill detained immigrants "is routinely ignored by immigration judges and deportation officers." Two days later, the New York Times revealed that over 30 Haitians had been languishing in immigration detention for months after being accidentally ushered onto a U.S.-bound plane by American Marines. For immigrants and immigration advocates frustrated by the lack of immigration reform, the OIG's report added "insulted to injury" at the end of an embarrassing week for ICE and left many to conclude that ICE is "more rogue than right." 

BUSH-ERA DEPORTATION NUMBERS: Since coming into office, the Obama administration has shied away from the controversial work-site raids of the Bush administration. Instead, both President Obama and DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano have promised to focus on pursuing undocumented immigrants who pose a danger to national security. Nonetheless, deportations have increased by 5 percent, reaching 387,790 removals in fiscal year 2009 -- two-thirds of which involved non-criminals. James Chaparro, head of ICE detention and removal operations, was upset that removals were still "well under the Agency's goal of 400,000," and said so in a memo that was eventually leaked to the Washington Post. Immigration advocates responded to the leaked deportation quotas with outrage. The Reform Immigration for America Campaign issued a press release stating, "ICE has a serious credibility problem as they continue to say one thing while doing another." The Immigration Policy Center issued a DHS "report card" stating, "[W]hile there is a policy shift at the top of DHS, it remains to be seen whether that shift will translate into a cultural shift throughout the agency." Frank Sharry of America's Voice urged the Obama administration to improve practices and performance by ICE, while other organizations called on the President to outright dismiss ICE head John Morton. Top ICE officials immediately denounced the leaked memo and clarified that it doesn't represent the agency's official policy. However, advocates remain largely skeptical of ICE leadership and the agency's capability to implement Obama's enforcement strategy.

287(G) BROKEN BEYOND REPAIR: In early 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report criticizing ICE for failing to provide local police participating in the 287(g) program with clearly defined objectives or a consistent system of supervision. "Contrary to the objective of the program," the GAO report found that participating local police were removing immigrants for minor violations amidst rampant allegations of discrimination and racial profiling instead of curbing serious crime committed by "removable aliens." Napolitano responded by announcing new objectives and guidelines aimed at "providing uniform policies" that prioritized the deportation of immigrants who commit serious crimes. The new OIG report indicates that, despite recent improvements, little has changed, and "significant challenges in administering the 287(g) program continue to exist." In fact, the report definitively stated that "ICE cannot be assured that the 287(g) program is meeting its intended purpose, or that resources are being appropriately targeted toward aliens who pose the greatest risk to public safety and the community." The report also found that little thought has been given to the protection of civil rights and civil liberties throughout the program's implementation, and "287(g) officers at several program sites were not knowledgeable about the asylum process, immigration benefits, and victim and witness protections." Although civil rights and immigration advocates weren't surprised by OIG's findings, the report was the last straw. Several organizations believe the program is "broken beyond repair" and are calling on the Obama administration to terminate the program once and for all.

ATTACKS FROM THE RIGHT: In the past, Morton has accurately pointed out that he "can get criticized on the same issue from both sides on the same day." Throughout the past week, Morton has probably felt the sting from both sides on a daily basis. The same weekend Chaparro's memo leaked, a prominent Arizona rancher was shot and killed while in his SUV near the Mexican border. The despicable act of violence immediately prompted anti-immigration hawks like former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo  to describe the murder as having been committed by an undocumented immigrant, despite the lack of suspect and leads. Tancredo took his demands a step farther by calling for Napolitano's dismissal, accusing her of lying about border security in order to move immigration reform forward. However, Napolitano has never said that DHS's work at the border is done. What she has said is that over the past few years, the U.S. has seen "improve[d] immigration enforcement and border security within the current legal framework." Ultimately, the agency's inconsistent application of the Obama administration's promises isn't just the result of a few "ICE cowboys" carrying out their own priorities, it's also the natural result of an agency that is stuck enforcing bad immigration laws within a broken system. "We will never have fully effective law enforcement or national security as long as so many millions remain in the shadows," Napolitano has stated. Throwing more money and boots at the border might temporarily shut restrictionists like Tancredo up, but in the absence of immigration reform, the tragedies associated with the nation's defective immigration laws will continue to mount on both sides of the debate.

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