Progress Report: Is DHS Making the Grade?

Yesterday marked the seventh anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its immigration agencies: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). It also corresponds to the due date set by Secretary Janet Napolitano for completion of a sweeping internal review of DHS. While the internal review results have never been made public, an external review reveals that DHS is struggling with the challenges of reform—both administrative and legislative—and finds itself attempting to create more humane ways to enforce broken laws, which is ultimately a losing proposition.

The Immigration Policy Center released “DHS Progress Report: The Challenge of Reform” today which measures DHS actions over the past year against recommendations made to the Obama Transition Team’s immigration-policy group. The “Transition Blueprint” produced by a wide range of immigration advocates focused on administrative improvements that would instill fairness, create efficiencies, and build support for comprehensive immigration reform in several key areas: due process, enforcement, detention, family immigration, naturalization, immigrant integration, and asylum.

On the plus side, there has been more public engagement and discussion of DHS priorities. ICE has announced, although not fully implemented, numerous detention reforms. It has done away with the massive worksite raids of the past few years, placing greater emphasis on employer violations. The Obama Administration and USCIS have made some genuine inroads into immigration fee reform, backlog reduction, and expanded naturalization and integration efforts. Secretary Napolitano has also invested significant time and resources into developing plans for comprehensive immigration reform.

But the disappointments are many. DHS is still trying to enforce its way out of a broken immigration system with programs like Operation Streamline, a program which requires mandatory criminal prosecutions of non-violent border crossers, clogs the federal court system and drains resources that could be used to prosecute more serious criminals. DHS is also expanding partnerships with state and local law enforcement agencies (Secure Communities and 287(g) programs) in their search for “criminal aliens.” These programs often identify people with no criminal history and persons “identified” but found not to be deportable. Meanwhile, immigration practitioners continue to criticize USCIS for the lack of transparency on how decisions to grant or deny applications are made.

These are just some of the examples of changes within the last year. Ultimately, this first year was both promising and frustrating—a year where the promise of reform seems to fight daily with the dynamics of an entrenched belief in an enforcement driven culture. For every two steps forward, it seems that the Department takes one steps backward, inching its way toward a more humane and just system. There is clearly much more that can and should be done at an administrative level—without Congressional action—to improve the system. But we are living on borrowed time. Without immigration reform that gives DHS the breathing room to do the right thing, annual reviews will increasingly be catalogs of more enforcement measures without corresponding opportunities for immigrants to make the kinds of contributions to our country that enrich us all.

Photo by Sharon Day.

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