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Who is a Criminal? ICE's Less-than-Reliable Numbers on 'Criminal Offenders'

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A lot has been written this week on the recent ICE sweep that arrested more than 3,100 individuals over the span of six days, involving more than 1,900 ICE officers in every state across the nation.  Given the scope of the operation—it was one of the largest deportation sweeps ever of its kind—we have to wonder who was picked up, and for what reasons.  The Obama administration’s prosecutorial discretion policies are supposed to be in force right now, and the headlines about this sweep were all about the really bad guys taken off our streets.  But given our experience, we were skeptical.  Is ICE really deporting only the worst criminals, while allowing innocent DREAM Act students and hardworking immigrants who just want to take care of their families stay?

ICE director John Morton assured the Washington Post this week that his agency was being discriminate about who it chose to detain:

This is part of our effort to prioritize our immigration enforcement efforts.  As a matter of public safety, we start first and foremost with criminal offenders.

Unfortunately, ICE has a history of talking the talk without walking the walk.  Our colleague, Dara Lind, put together this memo of the many times in recent memory when ICE has obfuscated or trumped up its numbers of who it is calling a criminal in order to win headlines.  Some of its so-called “criminals” have done nothing worse than run a red light.  Do they really meet the “worst of the worst” criteria that ICE is supposed to be following?

From FY 2009 to February 20, 2012, ICE deported 1,316,375 immigrants. A majority of those, 53%, had not committed any crime at all. The other 47% were what ICE calls “criminal aliens”—a scary-sounding term for someone who could have committed a range of offenses from violent or dangerous crimes, to re-entering the country after being deported, to a simple traffic offense.

In the first half of 2011, ICE deported 46,486 parents of U.S. citizen children. In the introduction to a new report, compiled when Congress asked how many parents of U.S. citizen kids were being deported, John Morton announced he was “pleased to present the following report, ‘Deportation of Parents of U.S.-Born Citizens.’”  Not something most people would be “pleased” about.  There’s been serious outcry about the numbers, particularly from Spanish language media, and ICE director John Morton was forced to discuss it at a press conference this week.  But instead of admitting that deporting the parents of U.S. citizens is really not something to brag about, Morton said “We want to retain the unity wherever we can.  At the same time, we can’t have a system that having a child in the United States is license to stay here unlawfully and commit crimes.”  We’ve seen this before – pull out the criminal card and you win.  Unfortunately for Morton, there’s no evidence to back up the claim that the vast majority of these people are criminals, or that criminals intentionally have children in order to thwart deportation.  Over the period covered by this report, just over half of all people ICE deported were criminals.

Even ICE’s signature program for finding and deporting “criminals” Secure Communities (or S-Comm), has a poor track record of actually targeting criminals. Of all immigrants who’ve been deported as a result of SComm since the program began in 2008, over a quarter—26.2%–didn’t commit any crime at all. Only 26.9% have been what ICE calls “Level 1” offenders (people who have, in theory, been convicted of the most serious crimes).

And it’s not just dangerous and violent criminals who get classified as “Level 1.” ICE records obtained by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) show that everything from cashing a check with insufficient funds to traffic offenses can get someone labeled “Level 1.”

In fact, traffic offenses were the second-most-common charge in detention according to the records TRAC analyzed. Rep. Luis Gutierrez has recently drawn attention to one of these “high-priority aliens” the government is trying to deport: Gabino Sanchez, a South Carolina construction worker who has lived in the country for a dozen years and has 2 U.S. citizen children. Sanchez has never committed a real crime, but is currently facing deportation proceedings because he has multiple misdemeanor convictions for driving without a license—i.e. driving while undocumented.  Sanchez has been stopped by cops eight times over his life in the U.S.—which sounds like racial profiling, not effective law enforcement.

So when we heard last week’s immigration sweep resulted in 3,168 arrests, we wanted to know more about the people behind the numbers.  ICE reports that 1,477 of those arrested had been convicted of felonies—46.6%–and 1,357 (42.8%) had misdemeanor convictions.  As the Associated Press reports, however, some of the “most serious” offenses were actually immigration crimes, like entering the country illegally after being deported, not violent crimes. ICE hasn’t even demonstrated that everyone they detained with a felony conviction was a dangerous criminal—not to mention the 1,300 immigrants with nothing more than misdemeanors.  Here’s what else we learned::

  • ICE bragged that it arrested 698 “immigration fugitives,” which makes them sound like outlaws. It’s a misleading term. “Fugitive” might mean an immigrant got an order of deportation and deliberately disregarded it—but it might just mean she missed a court hearing thanks to a fraudulent notario. It’s bad enough that many immigrants try to get legal representation and end up losing their money and their case thanks to notario fraud; ICE is adding insult to injury by tarring them as “fugitives” on the run from the law.
  • 10% (334) of the people arrested in this “crime” sweep had committed absolutely no crime.  We’re talking about hard-working, taxpaying immigrants with families, not hardened criminals.
  • ICE admits that a number of people picked up were “collateral” arrests—not people they were specifically looking for who had committed egregious criminal violations, but people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  In San Diego, for example, ICE agents only found 6 of the 12 immigrants they had warrants for, but they made up the difference by picking up 6 additional immigrants they just happened to find.

Clearly, the driving force behind last week’s sweep was quantity over quality.  Every headline trumpeted the 3,100 number, and every article mentioned that it was the largest immigration sweep in history.  But what about the lives and the families of the people who committed minor offenses—or none at all—and are being roped in with rapists and murderers?

So no, when we see splashy headlines about rapists and murderers arrested during massive immigration sweeps, we don’t believe that every person caught in the net is a dangerous felon.  We have good reason not to.