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ICE Director John Morton stepping down

John Morton, director of Immigration, and Customs Enforcement (ICE), testifies during a House Homeland Security hearing in 2012. (Mark Wilson/GETTY IMAGES)

John Morton, the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the past four years, on Monday announced plans to leave the agency at the end of July.

Morton, who was born in Scotland and raised in Loudon County, will take an executive-level position with Capital One bank in August. The Senate unanimously confirmed him to be ICE’s director in 2009.

“I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished together during that time and look with awe on the incredible progress ICE has made as an agency,” Morton said in a memo to ICE employees Monday. “ICE has truly come of age and become an innovative, leading force in federal law enforcement.”

Morton has drawn criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, with liberals criticizing him as too tough on immigrants who are in the country illegally and conservatives arguing that he isn’t tough enough.

During Morton’s tenure, ICE logged a record number of deportations, with the total increasing by more than 7 percent during his first three years on the job. A memo Morton issued in 2010 instructed officers to focus on felons and repeat lawbreakers instead of immigrants in the country illegally in general.

Morton’s departure was welcomed by some critics of the administration’s deportation record who argue that ICE’s stated policies don’t match its actions in the field.

“John Morton is the bogeyman in the immigrant community,” said Kica Matos, director of immigration rights with the Center for Community Change. “Immigrant rights advocates are expressing a collective sigh of relief over his resignation.”

Department of Homeland Security data show that 45 percent of all people deported from the United States in 2012 had no criminal records, according to America’s Voice Education Fund, a group that advocates for immigration reform.

“What we have are broken families, devastated communities and people who are afraid of any kind of law enforcement,” Matos said.

In a statement Monday, the Center for Community Change called on President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to nominate a replacement who is “far more reflective of this administration’s priorities.”

Republicans have criticized Morton for releasing thousands of detainees this year in preparation for the government-wide spending cuts known as the sequester, as well as for saying in 2010 his agency wouldn’t necessarily respond to every call under Arizona’s tough immigration law.

In a statement Monday, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) said: “Director Morton’s departure marks an opportunity for the president to commit to the full enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws. As Congress debates changes to our immigration system, it is essential that the president appoints someone qualified and committed to interior enforcement, so Americans can trust that the laws passed by Congress are carried out.”

Under Morton’s leadership, ICE bolstered its investigative efforts relating to border crimes, export controls, intellectual property enforcement and child exploitation, according to an agency profile of the outgoing director.

“I am deeply grateful for Director Morton’s contributions to DHS, ICE and our nation and I wish him all the best in his coming endeavors,” Napolitano said in a statement Monday.

At Capital One bank, Morton will become senior vice president and head of compliance when he joins the company in August.

“He is a skilled leader with great judgment and a proven ability to drive results in a dynamic organization,” said Capital One spokeswoman Tatiana Stead. “Compliance is a high priority for our company, and we couldn’t be more pleased that he will be joining our team.”

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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