tags: Press Releases

Memo from America's Voice to Obama Administration: Change ICE Practices or Change ICE Leadership

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Washington, DC — On the heels of two new exposes about the inner workings of the Obama Administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, America’s Voice is issuing a sharp warning to ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton, as well as to his boss, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano: rein in the cowboys at Immigration and Customs Enforcement who put deportation “quotas” ahead of smart law enforcement policy, or find someone who will.

It’s not a question of whether ICE enforces immigration laws, but how.  Every law enforcement agency sets priorities and ensures its agents adhere to them.  But starting with the Bush Administration, ICE began to go after the easy targets–undocumented workers—instead of more serious threats.  The agency went from focusing on criminals to focusing on quotas, and this was a strategy we expected the Obama Administration to correct.  While ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton has repeatedly said: “In a world of limited resources, we need to focus on the worst of the worst first,” recent developments show this direction has not made its way down the line.   

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice: “It’s time that the Obama Administration—from John Morton to Janet Napolitano to the president himself—rein in the cowboys at ICE who put quotas and crackdowns ahead of smart enforcement and stated priorities.  ICE should focus on the worst of the worst offenders—security threats, dangerous criminals, smugglers and traffickers, and abusive employers who violate labor and immigration laws, not ordinary undocumented workers who are here to build better lives for their families.  If ICE’s current leadership can’t make the changes necessary to ensure its stated enforcement priorities are followed, the Obama Administration should clean house and find leaders who can.”

This weekend, the Washington Post published internal ICE memos that show how wide the chasm is between agency rhetoric and on-the-ground practice.  The memos, first issued in late 2009 and early 2010, make it clear that ICE’s top priority is still meeting deportation quotas, not dealing with the worst of the worst offenders.  Agents are told to go after easy targets—non-criminal, undocumented workers—to boost their numbers and earn good performance ratings.  What was ICE’s response to the Post’s expose?  Blame the memo’s author, recast “quotas” as “performance goals, ”and say the memo has been “withdrawn and corrected.”  Forgive us if we want to see the new policy in writing before we concur. 

And today, the New York Times outlines the findings of a chilling new report by Texas Appleseed on the treatment of immigration detainees.  The report chronicles how mentally ill immigration detainees, “mostly apprehended in New York and other Northeastern cities, some right from mental hospitals, have often been moved to Texas without medication or medical records, far from relatives and mental health workers who know their histories.  Their mental incompetence is routinely ignored by immigration judges and deportation officers, who are under pressure to handle rising caseloads and meet government quotas.” 

The article goes on to describe what happens to these real people caught up in the ICE system: “[a] mentally disabled refugee from Southeast Asia . . .  was wrongly taken into custody in Providence, R.I., sent to Texas, then abruptly released without notice at a rural gas station at 11 p.m. . . .  [A] schizophrenic woman who spoke only Russian, [and was] left in a dangerous area at 1 a.m.; a man lost for a week on his way back from Texas to his family in Maryland; a delusional man who was deported four days earlier than planned, though his parents had arranged for his voluntary departure to Mexico, where his mother was to pick him up.  Two years later, the man has not been found, but a body matching his description is in a morgue in Mexico.”

These are not the first signs of trouble at Morton’s ICE.  After years of mismanagement under President Bush and DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, President Obama, Secretary Napolitano, and even Assistant Secretary John Morton promised to change the agency’s culture and priorities.  In 2008, candidate Obama told the NCLR convention in San Diego: “When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn’t working, and we need to change it.” 

But instead, we’ve seen a litany of abuses and scandals that show little has changed in ICE’s culture and day to day operations.  We’ve seen ICE:

  • Excuse SWAT-team tactics targeting undocumented workers in home raids.
  • Continue abysmal treatment of immigration detainees, and refuse to be held accountable in the courts.
  • Expand the 287(g) program, despite concerns raised by police associations that it destroys community trust and undermines public safety. 
  • Continue to deputize Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, despite the Sheriff’s outrageous tactics and defiance of the law.
  • Transition from massive, Postville-style worksite raids that caused extreme trauma to families and communities in the Bush era, to even larger “paper raids” that cause extreme trauma to families and communities under President Obama.

As Angelica Salas, leader of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) told the Washington Post: “When Obama said [during the campaign] it’s un-American to tear a mother from her child, we believed him.  We never imagined that a year later, we’d be denouncing his administration for surpassing the Bush administration on enforcement.”

Sharry added, “We are not going to deport our way to a controlled immigration system.  The ultimate solution is comprehensive immigration reform that ensures immigrants are legal, hiring is legal, and future immigration is legal.  Instead of playing to the right wing with its insatiable appetite for mass deportation, it’s time for the Obama Administration to turn its stated enforcement priorities into standard enforcement practice, and make good on its commitment to immigration reform this year.”

America’s Voice — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.