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Politics, budget pressures put ICE in tough spot

Oct. 12, 2012 - 02:02PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has made some impressive strides since its creation almost a decade ago. In fiscal 2011, the agency handled the deportations of more than 188,000 illegal immigrants with criminal convictions — an all-time high.

Agents made more than 31,000 criminal arrests in cases involving everything from counterterrorism to illegal employment and teamed up with the Labor and Justice departments on an initiative to prevent human trafficking.

But the agency still faces challenges — and the biggest may stem from its position in the thick of a fiercely charged political debate.

In a nation where an estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants are both a lightning rod and a major economic force, ICE leaders “have a very difficult job in trying to figure out how to carry out their mission,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and former top immigration official under the Clinton administration. That means balancing law enforcement responsibilities with individuals’ civil rights and broader considerations “for what national interest goals are really being served,” she said.

“Our immigration policy has been messed up and hypocritical for at least 40 or 50 years,” said Neville Cramer, a retired supervisory immigration special agent who is now a consultant. “When you have to manage people in that kind of scenario, you’re asking for trouble.”

The tension inherent in the agency’s role erupted into public view in August, when 10 ICE law enforcement officers sued to block implementation of an Obama administration directive allowing many illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to get work permits.

Immigration laws aren’t intended to deport “productive young people” to countries they may barely know, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano wrote in the June directive calling for prosecutorial discretion. In their suit filed in U.S. District Court in Dallas, the ICE officers countered that the new policy commands them “to violate their oaths to uphold and support federal law.” A judge has not yet ruled on their request for an injunction; as of last week, DHS lawyers had not responded in court.

In a statement, ICE spokesman Gillian Christensen termed the new policy a temporary measure that is an extension of the agency’s policy of targeting resources on deporting illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds.

On top of that, ICE, like many other federal agencies, now faces a money pinch, with its fiscal 2013 budget dropping almost 4 percent from $5.5 billion to $5.3 billion under the administration’s fiscal request. The agency plans to trim its workforce by almost 200 employees while making modest cuts to its information technology budget, ICE Director John Morton said at a March congressional hearing.

At the same time, the agency wants almost $139 million to complete the national rollout of Secure Communities, a four-year old program that uses fingerprints from immigrants arrested by state and local law enforcement to track down those with criminal records. Although the new fiscal year began last week, Congress has not approved annual budgets for DHS or any other federal agency, instead keeping them roughly at last year’s spending levels through March.

ICE was created in 2003 by absorbing parts of the Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Customs Service. By size, it ranks only behind the FBI in the lineup of federal investigative agencies.

Of the three immigration agencies within DHS, ICE probably faced the biggest organizational challenges, in such areas as meshing different missions, training needs and management structures; and setting “meaningful” law enforcement priorities in light of its numerous responsibilities, according to a 2009 report by the Migration Policy Institute.

Meissner credited ICE with progress on a number of fronts, such as stepping up pressure on employers to stop hiring illegal workers through “work-site enforcement” investigations and a greater focus on serious criminal activity.

But criticism has come from both sides in the immigration debate.

Immigrant advocates have objected, for example, that many of those deported because of criminal records were guilty only of traffic violations and other relatively minor offenses.

But in a July report, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group critical of White House policies, accused ICE of misrepresentation by claiming a record number of deportations in 2010. While deportations of criminal illegal immigrants increased, the group said, the number of deportations of noncriminals actually went down.

In a separate review released two months earlier, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service raised questions about ICE’s emphasis on work-site enforcement.

In 2011, for example, the agency reported 586 criminal convictions of companies and individuals charged with knowingly hiring illegals and related violations, a big jump from the 333 reported the preceding year.

That figure was still far below the 2008 total of 908. While the CRS report noted the possibility of lag times between arrests, indictments and convictions, the volume of criminal fines and forfeitures fell 80 percent from $36.6 million in 2010 to $7.2 million last year. For both measures, moreover, the amounts “seem quite small relative to the estimated size of the unauthorized alien workforce,” the report said.

ICE also confronts a serious morale problem among its staff.

Last year, ICE ranked 222nd out of 240 agency subcomponents in the Partnership for Public Service’s annual survey of best places to work within the federal government.

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