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John Morton Gets It. The House GOP Gets It. It's Time To Drop the "Criminal Alien" Stereotype Once And For All

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john mortonThe manufactured kerfuffle of ICE’s release of a number of immigrants from detention facilities last month has officially reached the phase where House Republicans hold hearings to show off how outraged they are by the Obama Administration. Typically, such hearings are full of fact-free fearmongering about criminals running amok on the streets. But while this morning’s hearing, in the Homeland Security Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee,  featured plenty of self-conscious tough talk (from House Republicans and ICE Director John Morton alike), we were surprised to hear both Morton and Subcommittee Chair John Carter (R-TX) admit that many immigrants in detention may not need to be there, and that generalizations and hyperbole about “criminal aliens” don’t match reality.

First, Morton, in the midst of attacking Cook County’s ordinance preventing local cops from turning immigrants over to ICE (a policy designed to protect immigrants from getting shoveled into a deportation pipeline on any pretext) admitted that “I understand the concerns some communities have with (turning over) very, very low-level offenders.”  These “very low-level offenders” are, of course, the overwhelming majority of the immigrants ICE detains and deports.  In fact, 70% of the immigrants released from detention last month, according to Morton, and half of those who were deported last year, had no criminal records–which we suppose makes them “no-level offenders.” Yet ICE has boasted for years about how many of the immigrants they deport are “criminal aliens” and “priority immigration violators.” This morning, Morton admitted that those of us who have challenged how seriously ICE actually takes those priorities have a point.

Morton went on to say that he didn’t understand Cook County’s policy of not turning anyone over, showing that he misses the point: maybe the people ICE is liable to take and deport for having broken taillights might have reason not to trust ICE’s definition of “high priorities” for deportation. But for Morton to admit that maybe, just maybe, ICE doesn’t need to detain as many “low-level” immigrants as it does brought his agency’s rhetoric one step closer to reality.

Even more interesting was an exchange between Morton and Rep. Carter at the end of the hearing. Morton told Carter, “we may just disagree about whether someone who had a simple assault 20 years ago and spent two days in jail” needs to be kept in detention. But Carter agreed with him: “A simple assault 10 years ago–I think we all have enough common sense to recognize that as an extenuating circumstance” that would justify releasing the immigrant in question.

The advocates in the hearing room were openly gaping at this exchange in surprise. A House Republican and the head of ICE, agreeing that someone who could technically be labeled a “criminal alien” might not need to be detained? They know that people get deported  as “criminal aliens” for the smallest of crimes every day, right? They know that getting detained or deported for something that happened over a decade ago is hardly uncommon?  Now that we know everyone agrees in principle, it’s time for both Carter and Morton to take some responsibility and blow up the “criminal alien” concept once and for all. ICE needs to stop counting every undocumented immigrant with a traffic violation as a “criminal alien” and a deportation priority, and Congress needs to ensure that reform doesn’t exclude immigrants because of overly-strict definitions of “criminal.” Fix that, and Rep. Carter and company can bluster all they want.