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Tension over Obama policies within Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The union representing immigration officers issued a vote of no confidence ICE director John Morton.
The union representing immigration officers issued a vote of no confidence ICE director John Morton. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Andrew Becker
Friday, August 27, 2010

As it poises for further immigration initiatives, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is struggling with festering internal divisions between political appointees and career officials over how to enforce laws and handle detainees facing deportation.

Under the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security has shifted its focus away from the worksite raids and sweeps employed during George W. Bush's presidency to deporting more criminals and creating less prisonlike detention settings. But ICE, a branch of DHS, is facing intensified resistance from agency middle managers and attorneys, and the union that represents immigration officers.

The internal conflict has grown increasingly public over ICE's plans, among them to expand a risk assessment tool to guide agents on detention decisions, cut down on transfers of detained immigrants, and open more "civil" detention facilities -- what field directors call "soft" detention.

Immigration officers say the new measures limit their enforcement efforts and the revamped lockups will compromise their safety. In June, their union took the unprecedented step of issuing a vote of no confidence in the agency's director, John Morton, and the official overseeing detention reform, Phyllis Coven.

Months before that, the 24 field managers who oversee detention and deportation sent a memorandum to Morton that challenged a number of recommended changes. Current and former ICE attorneys in New York, Houston and other offices nationwide say they are angry that they have been instructed to drop efforts to deport some immigrants.

"We can't find a supervisor or manager that supports Morton or his initiatives," said Chris Crane, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Council 118, the union that issued the no-confidence vote.

Many of the measures, set to be implemented in the coming weeks and months, may not require a conversation with the union, but ICE leadership seeks the union's viewpoint on issues tied most closely to immigration reform, said Beth Gibson, ICE's assistant deputy director.

"We are at the beginning of a big push," Gibson said in an interview. "We are about to come up on a series of things I see as incredibly powerful pieces of reform."

Crane said the union wants to negotiate over implementation, which could delay some changes.

The criticisms of ICE illustrate the obstacles the Obama administration must navigate in selling the changes to the ranks while trying to appear both tough on enforcement and serious about fixing the nation's immigration laws. The friction between the agency's leadership and managers tasked with instituting the changes reflects the nation's split over immigration.

A senior White House official, acknowledging the rift between ICE leadership and boots-on-the-ground employees, said the union's unusual posture of addressing policy sent a message consistent with groups that espouse tougher immigration restrictions.

"The call from the left is John Morton is too tough. The guy is leading the effort to remove more people from the country than ever before," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters. "That others say he's soft on enforcement strikes me as remarkable. At the end of the day, it's about sound law-and-order principles, not decisions based on the political wind."

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