Immigration Priorities Questioned

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

As the Obama administration vows to re-engineer immigration policy to target criminals, a new report says that in recent years, a high-profile federal program shifted its focus away from catching the most dangerous illegal immigrants who were evading deportation orders.

Between 2003 and 2008, 27 percent of the more than 96,000 illegal immigrants arrested under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's National Fugitive Operations Program had criminal convictions. And in 2007, 9 percent of those arrested were fugitives from deportation orders who were criminals or were considered dangerous. That same year, the share of arrests of illegal immigrants not facing deportation orders grew to 40 percent.

The findings come as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has ordered a review of which immigrants are targeted for arrest and as a Democratic Congress has shifted ICE money toward pursuing criminals.

Under President George W. Bush, immigrant advocates complained that armed ICE agents conducted harsh and indiscriminate raids at homes and in neighborhoods, and advocates accused the government of racial profiling, illegal searches, false arrests, family separations and other humanitarian abuses.

Authors of the report, issued by the Immigration Legal Clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York City and the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said that despite assurances to Congress, Bush administration officials changed course from trying to capture the most dangerous illegal immigrants to boosting arrest totals.

Peter L. Markowitz, a Cardozo law professor, said Bush officials approved such tactics because they were "facing political pressure to look tough on immigration enforcement." ICE, he said, "created tremendous bureaucratic incentives" for fugitive operations teams to adopt "a shotgun approach of undisciplined home raids."

In January 2006, ICE raised arrest quotas for each team in the program from 125 to 1,000 and ended a requirement that 75 percent of those arrested be criminals. Later, ICE let teams count non-fugitives toward their numerical goal. The Cardozo-MPI findings were first reported yesterday by the New York Times.

Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for homeland security, said he was "discouraged that ICE's previous leadership misrepresented the goals of the expanded Fugitive Operations Program and chose not to use its additional resources as Congress instructed."

Spending on the program grew from $9 million in 2003 to $219 million in 2008, and the number of fugitive operations teams grew from eight to 104.

Julie L. Myers, ICE director from 2006 until last year, called the report "a work of fiction with a thinly veiled agenda" that "unfairly maligns the work Congress asked the agency to do."

Congress has mandated "that all fugitives must be identified, arrested and removed," current ICE spokeswoman Kelly A. Nantel said, not just those with prior criminal convictions.

Nantel added that ICE arrested more than 250,000 other criminal illegal immigrants last year through different programs and that so far in fiscal 2009, it has picked up 179 percent more than in the same period a year earlier.

For the first time, she said, the number of immigrants evading deportation orders fell sharply, from 634,000 in 2007 to 554,000 currently, in part through a purge of outdated records.

"To give non-criminal fugitives a pass is to send the message that a judge's deportation order doesn't matter. It is a message of amnesty for lawbreakers," said Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration.

Napolitano called that message a "false dichotomy," saying, "No, it's a matter of where you put your emphasis. . . . It doesn't mean that you give a blank check to everybody else."

For example, ICE estimates that as many as 450,000 criminals being held in federal, state and local U.S. detention are illegal immigrants. The agency deported about 113,000 criminals last year.

This year and last, congressional Democrats gave ICE $350 million and told the agency to redirect an additional $850 million to catch and deport criminals, leading to a rebound in arrests.

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