WASHINGTON -- As Republicans accuse the Obama administration of shirking its responsibilities on immigration enforcement, the agency responsible for it announced Monday the arrest of more than 3,100 convicted criminals and illegal re-entrants within a six-day period last week.
From Saturday, March 24, to Thursday, March 29, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 2,834 convicted criminals and 698 people who had illegally re-entered the country after being removed.
"These are not people we want roaming our streets," ICE Director John Morton said at a press conference on Monday.
The Obama administration is attempting to counteract two dramatically different charges leveled against it on immigration enforcement. From the right, there is a claim that the administration is more interested in providing "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants than enforcing the law. From the left, immigrant advocates point out the large number of non-criminals and low-level offenders -- many of whom have families in the United States -- that are netted and deported by ICE.
Deporting convicted criminals, and touting it, is meant to thread the needle between the two. Last week's operation was the third of its kind: The first, in which 2,442 convicted criminals were arrested, took place in May 2011; the second, which netted 2,901, took place in September 2011.
Many of the arrests were of "immigration fugitives" -- people who were given deportation orders but didn't leave -- and those who illegally re-entered the country, according to ICE. About 150 people convicted of sexual assault were arrested, they said.
Morton announced in a June 2011 memo that ICE would focus on undocumented immigrants who had committed crimes, and the administration announced in August that it would review and, in some cases, close, deportation cases against those deemed low-priority for removal.
Morton said Monday that last week's arrests proved those efforts were working. He also referenced fiscal year 2011 deportation figures, which broke the record for removals in a single year.
More than half of those deported in the 2011 fiscal year were convicted of felonies or misdemeanors.
"We are focusing our efforts now to beat that record this year," Tom Homan, deputy executive associate director for Enforcement and Removal Operations, said Monday of deportations of criminals.
One effort to find undocumented immigrants arrested for crimes, a program called "Secure Communities," will continue expansion despite concerns from some communities, Morton said.
The program, which shares fingerprint data from local arrests with the federal government in order to find undocumented immigrants, was met with resistance in some states and localities that attempted to opt-out and were then told they could not. Secure Communities also faces opposition from immigrant rights groups who say it could encourage racial profiling and put innocent people, including the victims of crime, into deportation proceedings.
Morton echoed previous statements that the agency will not suspend the program to address these potential problems.
"There are a lot of plans to work with these communities, none to slow down the process," he said. "We're in 45 states out of 50, and guess what, the sky hasn't fallen. Secure Communities makes a lot of sense."
Morton said the administration would continue to focus on criminals, but admitted that some could be parents and others with ties to the United States. The agency reported last week that it deported nearly 46,500 parents of U.S. citizens in the first half of 2011.
"We want to retain the unity wherever we can," he said. "At the same time, we can't have a system that having a child in the United States is license to stay here unlawfully and commit crimes."
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