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ICE Out of Control: Time to Rein in Rogue Agency and Pass Immigration Reform

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Today, a group of grassroots leaders are demanding that the Obama Administration fire John Morton, the head of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) within the Department of Homeland Security.

Deepak Bhargava of the Center of Community Change, a lead organizer of the immigration rally in Washington, D.C. on March 21st and a leader of FIRM (Fair Immigration Reform Movement), had this to say at today’s press conference:

"This agency has gone rogue and is operating in clear opposition to the direction President Obama has set."

What gives? It seems the stated priorities of President Obama may not be in sync with the cowboy tactics of ICE agents in the field.

The President gets it. He has always gotten it. In 2008 candidate Obama had this to say to the NCLR convention in San Diego:

"When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working, and we need to change it.” 

Little more than a week ago, President Obama told a gathering of over 200,000 activists that he heard their plea and was standing as a partner with them in fixing the “broken immigration system.” Here’s part of what Obama said, via video, to the marchers:

I’ve always pledged to be your partner as we work to fix our broken immigration system and that’s a commitment that I reaffirm today. Nobody knows the cost of inaction better than you. You see it in the families that are torn apart and the small business owners who try to do the right thing while others game the system. You see it in the workers, who deserve the protection of our laws and the officers who struggle to keep our communities safe while earning the trust of those they serve.

But this past weekend the Washington Post exposed a high-level ICE directive and internal ICE memos that reveals how wide the chasm is between administration rhetoric and on-the-ground reality.

Seeking to reverse a steep drop in deportations, U.S. immigration authorities have set controversial new quotas for agents. At the same time, officials have stepped back from an Obama administration commitment to focus enforcement efforts primarily on illegal immigrants who are dangerous or have violent criminal backgrounds.

The moves…differ from pledges by ICE chief John T. Morton and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, to focus enforcement on the most dangerous illegal immigrants. That approach represented a break from the mass factory raids and neighborhood sweeps the Bush administration used to drive up arrests.

What was ICE’s response to the Post’s expose?  Blame the memo’s author, recast “quotas” as “performance goals,” and issue a press release stating the memo has been “withdrawn and corrected.”  Forgive us skeptics for wanting to see the new policy in writing before we concur.

To make matters worse, just today the New York Times outlined the findings of a chilling new report by Texas Appleseed on the treatment of immigration detainees.  The report chronicles how mentally ill immigration detainees from northern cities like New York, “have often been moved to Texas without medication or medical records, far from relatives and mental health workers who know their histories.”  According to the Times:

Their mental incompetence is routinely ignored by immigration judges and deportation officers, who are under pressure to handle rising caseloads and meet government quotas.

There’s another reference to those pesky quotas that are not supposed to exist. 

The back story is this: in the bad old days of the Bush Administration, ICE went from focusing on criminals to focusing on quotas; this in turn terrorized immigrant communities, led to tens of thousands of families being separated and led to a huge surge of Latino immigrant support for Obama.  Immigrants expected change, and when he was first appointed to his post, John Morton of ICE repeatedly said:

“In a world of limited resources, we need to focus on the worst of the worst first.”

It all sounded good, but it did not comport with the experiences on the ground.  Communities saw little change.  Instead, they saw an expansion of Bush-era tactics.  ICE excused SWAT-team tactics targeting undocumented workers in home raids.  They continued abysmal treatment of immigration detainees, and refused to be held accountable in the courts.  They expanded a program that authorized local police to apprehend those in the country illegally, despite concerns raised by police associations that it destroys community trust and undermines public safety.  They continued to deputize Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, despite the now-notorious Sheriff’s outrageous tactics and defiance of the law.  And they transitioned from massive worksite raids, such as the one carried out by the Bush Administration in Postville, Iowa, to even larger “paper raids” that cause enormous trauma and dislocation in immigrant communities.

Look, we’re not against enforcing immigration laws. We understand that every law enforcement agency sets priorities and ensures its agents adhere to them.  But it's past due for the Obama Administration—from John Morton to Janet Napolitano to the President himself—to rein in the cowboys at ICE who put quotas and crackdowns ahead of smart enforcement and stated priorities.  It’s time for ICE to focus on the worst of the worst offenders—genuine security threats, dangerous criminals, smuggling syndicates, sex traffickers, and abusive employers who violate labor, immigration, and tax laws.  It makes more sense to put taxpayer dollars to use jailing and deporting bad guys instead of tearing apart the families of undocumented workers who are here to build better lives and contribute to our nation with their hard work.

Most of all, it's time to fix the broken laws that got us into this mess.  Pandering to the extreme right wing with its insatiable – and unworkable –– appetite for deportation is a fool's errand.  The time has come for the Obama Administration and the Congress to do what the President has repeatedly said  he wants to do: work to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.

Cross-Posted at America's Voice

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