Pro-immigrant lawyers and activists are slamming the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for recently announced policy "changes" that they say will do nothing to improve the way illegal immigrants are being deported.
ICE director John Morton is saying he will give the department's lawyers more decision-making options on what immigration cases to prioritize. He claims this will make an illegal immigrant arrested as a result of a minor violation less of a concern for ICE than someone convicted of a more serious one, like a sex crime.
Morton first made this announcement Thursday in San Diego, California, at the American Immigration Lawyers Association conference, and elaborated on it Friday in a teleconference with the national press.
During the teleconference, Morton promised that "improvements" would occur in his department to satisfy concerns raised by local governments, and "to have the most effective program we can."
But Ezequiel Hernandez, a Phoenix-based immigration lawyer who attended the conference, wasn't impressed by the director's policy changes. Hernandez complained that ICE lawyers won't actually have to follow Morton's guidelines.
"If that's all it is, it's not giving us anything," he said.
Morton's move comes in the wake of three states opting out of a federal information-sharing program known as Secure Communities, which helps identify illegal immigrants with the assistance of local law enforcement. Massachusetts, Illinois, and New York have declared that the program has not achieved its goal of making sure serious criminals are being deported more often than non-criminals.
As a result, undocumented immigrants identified by Secure Communities are sometimes being deported because of a minor traffic violation that has landed them in ICE's custody.
"Secure Communities is not exclusively...for [convicted criminals]," Morton said during the teleconference. He contends that the program's goal is to remove serious criminals as the government lacks the resources to deport the entire undocumented population from the country.
For fiscal year 2010, ICE removed more than 150,000 convicted criminals. This is up substantially from previous years.
But the number of non-convicted numbers being removed is still much higher.
For ICE's purposes, a "convicted criminal" is someone who has been found guilty in court of serious crimes before they are in immigration proceedings.
But at times that definition gets blurry. For instance, local law enforcement might charge an illegal immigrant with identity theft, even though that person simply made up a Social Security number to obtain employment
Chris Newman, a lawyer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, says some of Morton's "changes" are things that the director has been talking about since day one on the job.
"If anything good came out of this announcement it's that [Morton] is recognizing there are problems with [Secure Communities]," Newman observed.
As another "improvement," Morton said witnesses and victims of crime in the country illegally will no longer be placed in immigration proceedings.
But Newman pointed out that protecting witnesses and victims from immigration proceedings has been an ongoing ICE policy, so calling this a "change" is misleading.
Another of Morton's so-called changes: Margo Schlanger, an official for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Civil Rights Division, will be assigned to monitor local law enforcement agencies as they implement federal immigration programs such as Secure Communities.
Morton says Schlanger will make sure there are no violations of civil rights while local law enforcement officers engage in ICE programs. She will also provide the LEOs training materials to help avoid violations.
But since these "changes" are already ICE policy, so what is the point of Morton's announcement?
"It's a political maneuver," Newman said. "To calm the criticism of the program."
Newman contends that Obama is walking on thin ice (pun intended) when it comes to immigration, because the president has yet to deliver on his campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform.
Instead, Obama has criminalized the undocumented community even further through existing federal immigration laws.
"The real betrayal is that [Obama] has failed to legalize undocumented immigrants," Newman stated.
If ICE is sincere about real change, Newman says, it would not allow Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to be a part of Secure Communities or have a 287(g) agreement allowing some county deputies to act as ICE agents in the jails.
Arpaio has been lambasted for the way he uses federal immigration programs, and in 2009, the feds yanked his 287(g) street authority, which Arpaio was using to carry out his notorious immigration sweeps. However, ICE left the program in place in Arpaio's jails, the repository for all of the county's collars.
Ironically, as the feds are cooperating with Arpaio in the jails, Arpaio is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible civil rights violations. Also, Arpaio's office is the subject of an ongoing federal grand jury investigation into criminal abuse of power allegations.
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So if Morton was really concerned about the rights of detainees, he'd end ICE's 287(g) agreement with Arpaio. But that would deprive ICE of a lot of warm bodies. So it's not going to happen.
Even with some states rebelling against federal immigration programs, Morton told reporters that he wants Secure Communities to be enforced nationwide by 2013.
Morton's critics say his announcement is little more than a PR stunt, a sop to the Latino community.
They warn that if President Obama wants to earn the support of Latinos in 2012, he must deliver on the immigration-reform promises he made as a candidate in 2008, not just have underlings like Morton mouth meaningless words.