By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 19, 2010; A13
On a typical day, John Morton finds himself under assault from the political right for failing to crack down on illegal immigration and from the left for cracking down too aggressively.
And that's a good day.
Morton holds what might seem like one of the federal government's most thankless jobs: director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. He is a key public face of Obama administration policy on a bitterly divisive issue, and the divide has only grown in the weeks since the Justice Department sued Arizona over the state's tough new immigration law.
If that law is allowed to take effect July 29, Morton and his agency will be even more in the center of the controversy: His agents will take most of the calls from Arizona authorities seeking to turn illegal immigrants over for deportation. Morton has already said they won't necessarily respond, drawing a rebuke from Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) on Fox News.
"I am not going to shut down immigration enforcement in the 49 other states of the union to commit to responding to every potential immigration violator in the state of Arizona,'' Morton reaffirmed in a recent interview in his Southwest D.C. office overlooking his native Northern Virginia. ICE, he said, has the resources to deport about 400,000 illegal immigrants a year nationwide -- and there are an estimated 460,000 in Arizona alone.
"We can't respond to each and every call," he said, adding that agents will focus primarily on immigrants with criminal records.
Morton, 43, is a boyish-looking former career federal prosecutor who took over ICE last year in May. Described by colleagues as earnest and apolitical, he said he is seeking a middle ground on the debate, enforcing immigration laws while calling for comprehensive reform in Congress and viewing legal immigration as "a good thing for our country.''
"You develop a thick skin in a job like this," said Morton, who admits to reading many of the brickbats that come his way but says they don't consume him. "I'd imagine that for some other senior leaders in government, the day when someone calls for their resignation would be the day they'd remember throughout their career. That's just part of the territory here.''
Sure enough, Morton and his agency evoke strong opinions from all sides. Crystal Williams, executive director of the pro-immigrant American Immigration Lawyers Association, faults him for overaggressive deportations and moving too slowly on promises to reform the immigrant detention system.
"If he's throwing people out without a lot of focus, he's hearing about it from the left, and that's what's going on here," she said. "If he's not doing enough enforcement, he'll hear about it from the right.''
Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), a persistent critic, accused Morton of "letting known illegal immigrants take American jobs and turning a blind eye to those who overstay visas or illegally cross our border.''
Similar criticisms are voiced by the American Federation of Government Employees Council 118, which represents about 7,000 ICE workers and recently cast a vote of no confidence in Morton's leadership. The union accuses Morton of abandoning ICE's "core mission" of enforcing immigration laws and focusing on "policies related to amnesty."
Morton's defenders are equally fervent. "We often say we are a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. John brings a great deal of sensitivity to both aspects of our identity," said Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which, like ICE, is part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Doris Meissner, who worked with Morton when she was commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, known as the INS, in the 1990s, chalked up his difficulties to the growing pains of a young agency and "resistance to change" within it. She credited Morton for taking on detention reform and for trying to focus ICE on "serious and complex criminal investigations."
Though public perceptions of ICE are dominated by its enforcement of immigration laws, its agents also investigate terrorism, narcotics smuggling, child pornography and other criminal cases. ICE was the principal investigative agency for nearly half the intellectual property theft cases the Justice Department filed in 2009, federal figures show.
ICE was created by the 2002 merger of the immigration service and the U.S. Customs Service, which gives it the wide authority customs had to stop contraband from entering or leaving the country. Morton is trying to increase awareness of ICE's criminal investigative work, saying it is "poorly understood and poorly celebrated.''
Born in Scotland, Morton grew up in Loudoun County as the son of an American father and an immigrant mother -- a British citizen who still has her green card. His career track, after law school and a Peace Corps stint in Africa, was immigration-focused: He worked for INS, for a Justice Department team that ran INS, as a federal prosecutor in Alexandria and as a senior official in Justice's Criminal Division during the Bush administration.
In Alexandria, Morton prosecuted immigration-related terrorism cases after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including against defendants who supplied the Sept. 11 hijackers with false Virginia identification.
"He was a leader, was frequently in my office with ideas,'' said Paul J. McNulty, U.S. attorney at the time. "He's not the kind of guy who just sits behind a desk and processes piles of papers.''