Few Big Fish Land in Immigration Dragnet

New York – Putting local police on the “front lines” of immigration enforcement is distracting federal agencies from their objectives by turning over people with no criminal history, or those who have committed minor or non-violent crimes, and setting them on a course toward unnecessary deportation.

This is one of main findings in a study by the Immigration Policy Center, the policy arm of the American Immigration Council, presented in a new report, “ICE’s Enforcement Priorities and the Factors that Undermine Them”, by Dr. Michele Waslin, IPC senior policy analyst.

She told IPS, “As long as ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] continues to outsource the identification and arrest of immigrants to LEAs [law enforcement agencies] and communities intent on ridding their jurisdiction of undocumented immigrants, ICE will find it extremely difficult to truly focus on serious criminals.”

The report notes that ICE will always be limited in terms of the authority it can express over its state and local partners, and says “it is very likely that non-priority immigrants will continue to be subject to immigration enforcement actions”.

Other advocacy groups are equally critical of the Department of Homeland Security, of which ICE is a major unit.

Human Rights First says that “one year after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced plans for a wide-reaching overhaul of the long-mismanaged immigration detention system”, the government “has yet to make significant progress toward the underlying goal of detention reform – a true shift from a penal to a civil approach to immigration detention.”

The IPC report notes that, “In recent years, ICE has grown more and more dependent on the 287(g) programme and the expanding Secure Communities programme, which are partnerships with state and local police agencies to identify immigrants for deportation.”

“ICE has, in effect, outsourced the identification of immigrants for enforcement actions to local police agencies and jails,” it says.

At an Oct. 6 press conference, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that DHS had removed more than 392,000 individuals in Fiscal Year (FY) 2010, and presented other “record-breaking immigration enforcement statistics achieved under the Obama administration”.

In addition to record-breaking overall numbers, Napolitano also announced the “unprecedented numbers of convicted criminal alien removals” in FY 2010. Of the 392,000 removals in FY 2010, more than 195,000 were classified as “convicted criminal aliens”, which was 81,000 more criminal removals than in FY 2008.

But the issue raised in this report goes to the question of whether deportees are the people originally envisaged – people whose violent behaviour poses a danger to their fellow deportees as well as society in general – or others guilty of minor offences such as driving and parking violations.

ICE says budget realities make it impossible to remove everyone who is in the country illegally or who is otherwise deportable, and has released a series of memos designed to prioritise the “worst of the worst”. Overall, this prioritisation represents an effort to bring order to the increasingly complex world of immigration enforcement.

Even though partnerships between ICE and state and local law-enforcement agencies are not necessarily helping ICE to reach its strategic objectives, over the past several years, these partnerships have been greatly expanded, and ever greater numbers of local police are serving as “force multipliers” for DHS.

The two programmes most closely associated with immigration enforcement are the 287(g) program and the Secure Communities program. The stated objective of both of these programmes is to target dangerous criminals and persons who pose a threat to the community.

ICE credits these programmes with the increase in deportations of “criminal aliens” over the past year.

Programs such as 287(g) and Secure Communities merge the federal immigration enforcement system with state criminal justice systems. But in many cases, local police arrest noncitizens who pose no threat to public safety for relatively minor crimes, such as driving without a license or shoplifting.

In other cases, immigrants are merely charged with crimes for which they are never convicted.

Through the partnerships between ICE and local police, immigrants are channeled into the immigration enforcement system, regardless of their guilt or innocence or the severity of the crime with which they are charged. These immigrants then face lengthy detention, few due-process protections, and deportation.

The data from ICE does in fact show an increase in the percentage of deportations of “criminal aliens” or “convicted criminal aliens”. However, a closer look at the numbers reveals that many of those “criminals” have committed low-level offences or misdemeanors, and many noncriminals continue to be deported.

One of the report’s main recommendation is for legalisation, which it says would be an enormous step” toward true prioritisation.

“A pool of more than 11 million persons subject to deportation is not a good starting place. Legalising undocumented immigrants who do not pose a threat to public safety or national security would allow DHS to focus its limited enforcement resources on unauthorised and legal immigrants with serious criminal convictions,” it says.

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