I’d be remiss if Ididn’t point out this extremely disturbing story from yesterday’s Washington Post:

In a Feb. 22 memo, James M. Chaparro, head of ICE detention and removal operations, wrote that, despite record deportations of criminals, the overall number of removals was down. While ICE was on pace to achieve “the Agency goal of 150,000 criminal alien removals” for the year ending Sept. 30, total deportations were set to barely top 310,000, “well under the Agency’s goal of 400,000,” and nearly 20 percent behind last year’s total of 387,000, he wrote.

Beyond stating ICE enforcement goals in unusually explicit terms, Chaparro laid out how the agency would pump up the numbers: by increasing detention space to hold more illegal immigrants while they await deportation proceedings; by sweeping prisons and jails to find more candidates for deportation and offering early release to those willing to go quickly; and, most controversially, with a “surge” in efforts to catch illegal immigrants whose only violation was lying on immigration or visa applications or reentering the United States after being deported.

To review: the Obama administration deported more undocumented immigrants in 2009 than Bush did in 2008. Apparently that isn’t good enough for Chaparro, who wants his agents to work harder to sniff out immigrants who are minding their own business so they can deport 400,000 people in 2010.

ICE director John Morton has claimed that “significant portions” of the memo do not reflect the agency’s practices, that there are no deportation quotas, and that ICE’s first priority in deportation is “dangerous criminal aliens.” This has been the Administration’s line since Obama entered office. But even the statistics included in Morton’s statement are much less reassuring than they’re obviously supposed to be. Some quick back-of-the-envelope calculations from ICE’s statistics reveal that about 141,300 of the 387,000 immigrants ICE deported in FY 2009 were “criminal aliens.” The remaining 245,700 were noncriminal — which means that if we take ICE at its word, the agency’s “first priority” accounted for 35% of deportations, and the other 65% were collateral damage.

Enforcement programs that purport to focus on criminals, such as the Fugitive Operations Program, have been shown to use their “priority” to swell their budgets while catching mostly immigrants who aren’t fugitives at all. And just this month, ICE conducted workplace raids — which by definition aren’t even ostensibly focused on “criminal aliens” — in 2 locations in Maryland, in addition to raids by local police in New Jersey and Arizona whose targets were immediately turned over to ICE.

Morton can make any statement he wants about his agency’s priorities, but he sure doesn’t seem to be putting them in practice, and lipstick vogue is cold comfort indeed when you’re trying to deport 250,000 people a year solely for being here without papers. In a best-case scenario, ICE is trying to target immigrants with criminal records and just has no clue how to go about it efficiently — and doesn’t particularly mind getting noncriminals in the dragnet instead. In a worst-case scenario, Morton’s real priorities for the agency have been revealed, and he’s lying through his teeth right now. Personally, I suspect the truth is somewhere between the two — the people at ICE who are trying to reroute the agency’s priorities don’t have control over the cowboys who are convinced, despite the Administration’s explicit instructions otherwise, that any “illegal” is criminal enough for them to round up, detain and (eventually) ship home.

Permadisclaimer: my opinions about immigration politics and policy are entirely my own and are in no way associated with my employer or any other organization. Likewise, my taste in music is entirely my own and is in no way associated with the proprietor of this blog.

Dara Lind

Dara Lind