Can DHS Prioritize?

The American Immigration Lawyers Association has released a report on DHS immigration enforcement efforts (via The Economist), arguing that the tools DHS is using to reduce illegal immigration conflict with its stated priorities of focusing on undocumented immigrants who are a threat to public safety. Essentially, their argument is that the use of programs like Secure Communities, which mandates local law enforcement in covered jurisdictions forward the identifying information of anyone they arrest to ICE, ensures that "prioritization" can't happen.

The deportation numbers offer some evidence for this claim--the vast majority of those deported are guilty of minor offenses beyond being in the country illegally or none at all. The report though, offers something much more compelling than dry statistics: Detailed examples of individuals who were removed after being identified by police through relatively innocuous behavior.

In April 2011, a man was a passenger in a car that was pulled over in Florida for no apparent reason. The driver of the car had a license, so he was allowed to leave. He was never given a ticket. However, since the passenger had no proof of status, the officer held him at the roadside until ICE arrived to take him into custody. He was held in immigration detention for about three months, until he accepted voluntary departure.


In June 2011, a car was pulled over in Pennsylvania for violating the regulation on tinted windows.
The four passengers in the car were also asked for identification. When they could not produce any,
the state police called ICE from the roadside and then brought the men to a local jail where they
were held until ICE took them into custody. None of the men were ever charged with an offense.


In April 2011, a young woman was sitting in a parked car outside a convenience store in North
Carolina when a police officer approached her. The officer asked her for her name. Initially, she gave the officer her nickname but when she realized that the officer was serious about questioning her, she handed over her bag and passport. The police officer removed her from the car and handcuffed her, accusing her of lying by giving a nickname. The officer then said, “You fucking Mexicans are all alike.” The woman and the officer got into a heated argument, and she was charged with identity theft, making a false report to a police officer, and resisting arrest. After posting bail, she was transferred into ICE custody. The young woman has lived in the U.S. since she was two years old, graduated from high school, and volunteers in her community.

In September 2009, a woman had just dropped her daughter off at school in California when she
was pulled over for making an unlawful right turn. Before she could say anything, the police officer
said, “I know you’re illegal,” and repeatedly questioned her about her immigration status. An officer
called ICE and held her until ICE came to the roadside to pick her up. She is currently applying
for cancellation of removal.

On the one hand it's very easy to take the populist line and say that none of the details matter because these people shouldn't be here in the first place. But the anecdotes remind us that deportation involves banishing people from the very lives they've spent years building. That's a punishment that seems somewhat out of proportion with the actual offense. 

These stories also bring to mind the impossibility of empowering local law enforcement with the job of enforcing federal immigration law without racial profiling. With the knowledge that any and all arrest information will be sent to ICE, there's just no real way to prevent individual local authorities from arresting people they assume are likely to be undocumented just because of the way they look.

The administration of course, would say that they're obligated to enforce the law. But it's fair for their critics to point out when they're straying from their stated priorities and intentions.

UPDATE: Well this is interesting news from Elise Foley:

The Obama administration announced on Thursday it will do a case-by-case review of deportations, allowing many undocumented immigrants without criminal records to stay in the United States indefinitely and apply for work permits.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will send a letter on Thursday to Senate members who had asked for details on how the agency would prioritize its immigration enforcement. The policy change is meant as a framework to help prevent non-priority undocumented immigrants from "clogging the system," senior administration officials said on a conference call with reporters Thursday.

First, the agency will look at its pending immigration cases and close the low-priority cases, so immigration courts can focus on the most serious ones, administration officials said. The low-priority cases can be reopened if circumstances require. Next, guidance will be given to immigration enforcement agents to help them better detect serious criminals and other high-priority undocumented immigrants.

Republicans will freak. But they were freaking when the administration was deporting close to 400,000 people a year, so it's not like avoiding this would have made a difference.

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