Why It Matters That ICE Can't Count.

"Secure Communities" is the Obama administration's signature immigration enforcement effort. By automatically checking the immigration status of anyone checked into a local jail, the administration claims, the program helps Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) find and deport serious criminals (who the administration is supposedly "targeting" for deportation over undocumented immigrants who haven't committed crimes). So how many criminals has DHS actually found and deported through Secure Communities since it was instituted in 2008?

According to an ICE press release from Jan. 13:

Nationwide, ICE is using the capability in 969 jurisdictions across 37 states, and it has helped ICE remove more than 59,000 aliens who have been convicted of a crime.

But according to an ICE spokeswoman in a Chicago Tribune article, also published Jan. 13:

Hailed by the Obama administration as a way to weed out bad elements among the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, the voluntary program has been adopted by local law enforcement agencies in 35 states so far and has led to the removal of nearly 51,000 people.

Obviously, either of these numbers is a disturbingly small fraction of the 800,000-plus immigrants the government has deported over the past two years. More to the point, there's a really big difference between "nearly 51,000" and "more than 59,000."

This isn't the first time ICE has had trouble keeping its numbers straight. Last year, it announced that deportations had increased by 47 percent between 2008 and 2009, then noticed months later that it had calculated incorrectly and the number was actually 5 percent. (The incorrect number of deportations continued to show up in official DHS literature.) And last spring, ICE's Secure Communities statistics changed drastically when its press releases quietly stopped counting immigrants "charged with or convicted of" crimes and started counting only "convicted criminal aliens."

Obviously, the fact that a federal agency has trouble with consistency in its statistics and definitions -- especially when that agency is tasked with uprooting hundreds of thousands of people a year -- is bad on its face, just as a matter of good governance. Because DHS' inspector general is not independent of the department (unlike most other inspectors general) it's especially important that ICE at least be minimally responsible in letting the public know what it's doing.

ICE's failure to count is also a massive unforced political error for the Obama administration. Its stated policy goal is to target criminals, but no one is persuaded that it's actually doing it: neither progressives who point to the 800,000 deportations nor conservatives who pretend they don't exist. (The latter group includes ICE field agents, who are in open revolt.) Watchdog and community groups are natural allies in helping ensure that ICE actually does what it's theoretically trying to do -- and might stop organizing against President Obama and start defending him if it did.

But it's impossible to trust ICE right now. It's impossible to trust that its agents will do what the leadership tells them to do. It's impossible to discount the persistent rumors of annual deportation quotas -- multiple outlets have reported that ICE wants to deport 404,000 people, but I haven't seen an official source. A lot of things will need to change if the administration wants to persuade Latinos and progressives to trust it on immigration enforcement. It can start by teaching ICE how to count.

-- Dara Lind