The announcement by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of detainee releases because of budget cuts raises serious accountability questions. To me it shows the agency’s operations are at odds with White House policies, and its employees are unhappy. Secretary Napolitano needs to get ICE on track – or risk derailing immigration reform.
ICE initially released detainees in order to save money, as the cost of keeping an immigrant in detention can run as high as $164 a night. But the effects of the sequester kick in gradually, so it’s odd that the agency would free detainees right away (It is unclear how many detainees were let go; ICE says it was a few hundred, while the Associated Press says the number was a few thousand). An ICE spokeswoman told Talking Points Memo that these detainees were“non-criminals and other low risk offenders who do not have serious criminal histories that would subject them to mandatory detention.” If so, then why were they being detained?
Napolitano said that “career officials in the field” had made the decision to release detainees. “Do I wish that this all hadn’t been done all of a sudden, and so that people weren’t surprised by it?” she told ABC News. “Of course.” The White House was not made aware of the releases either. So Napolitano’s regrets are not enough. As the head of Homeland Security, she should investigate this breakdown of communication.
A bigger, ongoing problem with ICE is that the agency seems to be conflicted about its mission. The Obama Administration says its immigration policy is focused on detaining dangerous criminals who are a threat to public safety. Yet according to ICE memos obtained by USA Today, ICE officials made plans to go after undocumented immigrants who committed minor crimes. USA Today’s report claims officials went through driver’s license records, staked out traffic safety checkpoints, and detained low-level offenders – all to meet deportation quotas. But Vincent Picard, ICE Public Affairs Director for the Southern region, stated that “USA Today’s story lacks context and does not present an accurate picture of ICE’s focus on criminal offenders.” Picard also said the Atlanta field personnel were discussing possible steps on pursuing criminal offenders, and “few of the contemplated steps were ever pursued.”
In fact, ICE set another record in 2012 for deportations, removing 409,849 undocumented immigrants from the U.S. Forty-five percent of these deportees had no criminal records whatsoever. Of the 55 percent classified as “criminals,” most were convicted of low-level crimes and immigration violations – not violent crimes, drug offenses, or DUIs. As one advocacy group point out, ICE is deporting the same undocumented immigrants that President Obama wants to put on a path to citizenship.
ICE has internal problems as well. The president of the ICE employees union, Chris Crane,recently told the House Judiciary Committee that the agency ranked 279th out of 291 federal agencies for employee job satisfaction. “Outside influences have in large part eroded the order, stability, and effectiveness of the agency,” he said, “creating confusion among ICE employees.” It has also led to open dissent; a group of ICE agents is suing the Obama Administration over the Deferred Action policy, which they contend prevents them from doing their job.
Yes, ICE is the agency everyone loves to hate. Conservative critics say ICE is not keeping the country safe from illegal immigration, while immigrant groups accuse it of tearing apart families. Precisely because the agency is subjected to such scrutiny, Napolitano must make it as transparent as possible. She has been an important supporter of immigration reform, but her credibility is at stake here. If Napolitano does not get ICE in order, it will provide ammunition for opponents of comprehensive reform. Napolitano must accept responsibility for the detainee releases, and ensure that her agency is committed to appropriate enforcement goals. Just as the public can no longer tolerate a broken immigration system, we can no longer tolerate a broken immigration agency.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.