By Sarnata Reynolds, Director for Refugee and Migrants' Rights at Amnesty International USA
On February 22, James Chaparro's sixth day on the job as the head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) behemoth detention and removal operation, he issued a memo directing all ICE field office directors to collectively identify, detain and deport 400,000 individuals in 2010. Stressing the need to increase this year's numbers, the memo communicated the quota and provided ideas for how individuals could be identified for deportation, including increased use of detention and deportations without an immigration court hearing (i.e., expedited and stipulated removal). Entirely missing from the memo was any consideration of the drastic impact massive detention and removal would have on individual families, communities and employers.
Last Saturday, The Washington Post carried a story containing the first public information about the memo and the deportation quota. The Assistant Secretary of ICE John Morton issued a press statement distancing the agency from the memo's contents. Chaparro apologized for the memo, stating that within a week of starting his job he had written and issued the memo without the approval of Morton or other senior staff. Daring and ambitious, if it's really possible that a memo of this magnitude could be crafted and published at ICE headquarters without any consultation within the first few days of work, but frightening if Morton's oversight is really this lax on national policy decisions to shatter families.
After Chaparro's mea culpa, Morton stated emphatically that ICE does not use deportation quotas. Instead it has "performance goals" for individual ICE officers that should collectively add up to 400,000 deportations in 2010. Regardless of intent, in practice these performance goals result in a deportation quota. For example, in November 2009, in an e-mail titled "Productivity," a unit of ICE officers was ordered to open up three new deportation cases every day. Failure to do so would require an explanation to the shift supervisor. On January 4, 2010, a full month before Chaparro arrived on the scene, ICE officers in Texas received a document explaining how their performance would be evaluated - deporting 46 or more people per month would garner an "excellent" mark. Completing 30 individual cases or less was "unacceptable."
In 2010 one of those successfully completed "cases" involved a refugee whom I will call David. David had been resettled in the United States after suffering extreme torture in a prison camp. He entered this country with PTSD and self-medicated, which resulted in a drug possession conviction. ICE held him in county jails and moved to deport him but couldn't because, given his severe trauma, an immigration judge waived the deportation. Over more than two years ICE appealed the decision, lost and appealed again. Even though David kept winning his case and being locked up was causing recurrent nightmares and flashbacks, ICE would not release David from detention. When I met David last summer he explained that his indefinite detention was wreaking havoc on his mental and physical health, and he did not have access to medical care that would help alleviate the trauma. He told me that every day he volunteered to help out jail staff in any way possible, hoping that it would exhaust him so that he could sleep. At the end of 2009, with an ICE appeal still pending, David gave up, leaving a U.S. citizen child behind. In January, his deportation helped one ICE officer meet his monthly quota.
Measuring success by the numbers may make sense in finance, but when the numbers constitute real people - mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers, community leaders, human rights defenders, refugees and scholars - it is an entirely inappropriate and dehumanizing measure of success. Without a doubt, ICE leadership is under pressure to be tough on immigrants, but this pressure cannot trump the rights of families to unity and individuals to due process and dignity.
For months Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Morton have publicly committed to transparency in government and dignity in detention and removal. Yet, it was only because of a newspaper's exposure that Morton spoke out against Chaparro's memo, and even then, he did not disavow the contents and instead essentially stated that it could have been better written.
Deportation quotas are dehumanizing, degrading and undermine due process. They force ICE officers to view individuals and families as milestones on their own road to success instead of people with their own hopes and dreams. Consistent with his public statements, Morton should retract the February 22nd memo, recalibrate and publicly release performance goals that focus on the deportation of individuals who have been convicted of serious criminal convictions, and publicly restate his commitment to a system of detention and deportation that upholds the U.S. government's ability to deport the dangerous, while respecting and protecting the human rights of all.