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New Dawn or Dark Night?

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DHS Has Yet To Make Good On Its Promise to Prioritize “The Worst of the Worst”

When it comes to repairing our nation’s broken immigration system, the Obama Administration has made two commitments to the American people: 1) to re-orient our nation’s immigration enforcement priorities to target the “worst of the worst” – in the words of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Undersecretary John Morton; and 2) to advance comprehensive immigration reform.  But recent developments on immigration enforcement show that the Department of Homeland Security still has a ways to go to truly reform its enforcement priorities.    

Consider these examples: 

  • In April, the Obama Administration announced a welcome change to ICE’s worksite enforcement strategy.  Rather than the Bush-era raids that swept up hundreds of immigrant workers at a time and let the employers off the hook, the new Administration vowed to focus on the worst worst employers with criminal sanctions.  Yet the Administration’s largest worksite enforcement action to date targeted not the most unscrupulous of unscrupulous employers taking advantage of the broken immigration system to drive a profit, but a company that is widely recognized for treating its employees well and calling for action on comprehensive immigration reform – American Apparel.     
  • A recent report by the University of California, Berkeley Law School’s Warren Institute documents a terrifying phenomenon in Irving, TX that is repeating itself in other communities across the nation: Latinos are being targeted for extremely minor offenses as a way for enforcement officers to be able to check their citizenship status.  Rather than directing local police agencies to focus on serious criminals, the report indicates that in Irving, DHS has gone along with the priority scheme.  Fully 98% of ICE detainers were filed for people charged with low-level misdemeanors, while just 2% were felons.  According to the report: “In addition to facing arrests for minor violations, such as knocking over a cone or driving without lights, Hispanics who are lawfully in the U.S. bear the burden of proving their status, first to police and then to ICE.”
  • The Department of Homeland Security’s own report on the state of immigration detention confirms the skewed priorities of Bush-era immigration enforcement and the need for systemic reform under DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano.  According to the report, the Department should make significant changes to the current system by improving medical care and treating non-criminal immigration detainees like the civil violators that they are, not dangerous criminals.  The report even found that many detainees identified through programs that were created to target criminals—the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) and 287(g)—were non-criminals.  In Fiscal Year 2008, 37% of those identified under CAP and 57% of those identified under 287(g) were non-criminals.  In Fiscal Year 2009, 41% of those identified under CAP were non-criminals and 53% of those identified under 287(g) were non-criminals.
  • Finally, media reports out of the offices of Maricopa County, AZ Sheriff Joe Arpaio indicate that the Department of Homeland Security may be poised to sign a new 287(g) agreement and continue working with Arpaio.  Arpaio is the notorious Sheriff who has made a name for himself in the anti-immigrant movement by sweeping Latino neighborhoods in search of undocumented workers to arrest on trumped up charges, instead of focusing on the thousands of felony warrants stacked on his desk.  His sweeps regularly pull in U.S. citizens and legal residents who are considered guilty of immigration violations until proven innocent.  Arpaio is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for his tactics that have undermined community safety and put him in direct conflict with more responsible law enforcement agencies in the area.  

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The Obama Administration has taken some important steps to re-direct DHS’ immigration enforcement priorities, but so far has fallen short on its own yardstick of prioritizing the worst of the worst.  DHS has a chance to move in a bold new direction – one that saves taxpayer money, goes after the truly bad actors, and treats undocumented immigrants with decency and humanity.  The question is: Will they?”

He added, “In the coming week, ICE has to decide whether to legitimize Sheriff Arpaio or not.  If they do, then they will turn their stated priority of going after the worst of the worst on its head – by conferring its legitimacy on the worst of the worst 287(g) agreements in the nation.” 

For more on the failed enforcement priorities of the Bush era and a roadmap to reform for the Obama Administration, see the April 2009 report The Obama Opportunity on Immigration Enforcement by America’s Voice.


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