03/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Government Mindgame Over Undocumented Immigrants

One of the fundamental factors causing debate over illegal immigration enforcement is the public perception of undocumented immigrants. Are they real criminals? Some in law enforcement have gone to great lengths to paint them in this light. Yet a new examination of government immigration enforcement strategies uncovers a deliberate attempt to confuse real criminals with those who only lack the proper paperwork.

Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the quintessential marketer when it comes to creating media buzz on his unique style of law enforcement.

It's what garnered him his own show on the Fox Reality Network titled Smile ...You're Under Arrest! Yet, it's his immigration enforcement tactics that have made him the darling of right-wing supporters, scorned by those repulsed by his methods and admired by those constituents who feel he's doing a good job keeping them safe.

From stakeouts in Hispanic-heavy neighborhoods with his "posse" of law enforcement to catch unsuspecting undocumented immigrants to his latest tactic of mass-marching 200 shackled immigrant inmates from a brick-and-mortar jail to the infamous Tent City electric fence complex, Sheriff Arpaio obviously relishes the role as immigration enforcer.

And while the 21,183 undocumented immigrants Sheriff Arpaio is credited with turning over to immigration authorities for deportation is staggering for a county sheriff -- his latest press release boasts 67 arrests in the last 13 days -- the larger reality is that the only crime most of these immigrants have committed is not having their papers in order. An in-depth newspaper series on Sheriff Arpaio found that after reviewing his department's immigration arrest records from 2006 and 2007, the majority of immigrants arrested rarely were guilty of any other crimes.

Yet, it's been Arpaio's mission to paint every undocumented immigrant as a dangerous criminal. After all, it's much easier to scare the public into agreeing with extreme enforcement measures when they think criminals, in the traditional sense of the word, are running loose.

Though Arpaio would probably like to take credit for creating this kind of mindgame, we now know it's a strategy that was implemented at the highest level of immigration enforcement -- the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE.

A recent New York Times article found evidence that ICE, under the banner of apprehending only fugitive criminal aliens, routinely arrested undocumented immigrants who had no criminal records and no deportation orders against them.

It was a strategy that countered ICE's promises to Congress that they would only concentrate on arresting those undocumented immigrants who had committed hard crimes and who were suspected of being terrorists. In that respect, it was much easier to get Congressional funding and public support.

It also justified the department's Gestapo-like behavior of beating the front doors down on the homes of innocent Hispanic families and traumatizing them under the guise of searching for criminal immigrants.

In a report released this week by the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute titled "Collateral Damage: An Examination of ICE's Fugitive Operations Program", it was found that of the 97,000 people arrested from the inception of the National Fugitive Operation's Program in 2003 to early 2008, 73 percent were undocumented immigrants without criminal records.

That's a significant finding considering this program received more than $625 million from Congress, more than any other Department of Homeland Security immigration enforcement program, for the express purpose of finding and removing only those fugitive aliens with criminal records.

The sad result of the gross misdirection of this program is that ICE officials admit that 557,762 real criminal aliens still remain in the country. Unfortunately, unless Secretary Napolitano intervenes and renews the program's mission, these same abuses will persist given the fact that each of the 104 fugitive operations teams has an annual quota of arresting 1,000 criminal aliens -- that's up from the 2006 quota of 125.

While the rule of law certainly must be enforced, in these times when local, state and national governments are finding themselves cash-strapped to implement even the most basic services for their citizens, it doesn't make sense to spend millions of dollars on manpower rounding up and detaining people whose only crimes are they lack the correct paperwork to be in the country legally.

One of Sheriff Arpaio's reasons for moving his 200 immigrant inmates to Tent City was because it's cheaper to house them there than in a traditional jail.

Yet, wouldn't it save a lot more money if only true criminal aliens were the ones being arrested and jailed?

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