Over the last week, there has been a great deal of outrage, confusion, and backtracking on the issue of who and how many people the U.S. government deports.

Faced with a great deal of criticism for Bush-style enforcement, the Administration announced last year that it would no longer be conducting large scale worksite raids, and that worksite enforcement would focus on employers. At the same time, the Administration also stated that it would shift the focus of enforcement to “criminal aliens”—the “worst of the worst.” Programs like Secure Communities, which identifies immigrants who are in local jails and are deportable, have helped to make that shift—at least in rhetoric (whether or not immigrants identified as criminals are really criminals is another post).

On March 18, 2010, ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton was in the hot seat testifying before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security. Morton testified that ICE has achieved record numbers of deportations while focusing on identifying and removing “criminal aliens.” Ranking member Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY) took issue with the fact that ICE is focused on criminals and asked why ICE wasn’t pursuing noncriminals. Rogers stated, “we cannot allow a preoccupation with criminal aliens to obscure other critical ICE missions.” For Rogers, prioritizing criminals seems to be getting in the way of deporting lots of people.

Then on Saturday, the Washington Post ran the headline, “ICE Officials Set Quotas to Deport More Illegal Immigrants.” James M. Chaparro, head of ICE detention and removal operations, issued a memo in February that stood in direct conflict with the Administration’s stated goals of prioritizing dangerous criminal aliens. The memo stated that ICE had set a quota of 400,000 deportations for the year without regard to whether those individuals were criminals or not, and laid out strategies for doing so. In other words, it’s not about keeping us safe, it’s about achieving big numbers.

Later on Saturday, ICE was forced to issue a statement which stated that Chaparro’s memo did not reflect their policies and was sent without proper authorization. Furthermore, ICE remains “strongly committed to carrying out [its] priorities to remove serious criminal offenders first and [they] definitely do not set quotas.”

How embarrassing for ICE to have such public disagreement within its ranks. As AILA attorney David Leopold wrote:

As the director of all ICE detention and removal operations, Chaparro is not simply someone who follows policy but a high level official who sets policy. The fact that his memo was sent more than a month ago without any apparent corrective action by Morton or Napolitano further undermines ICE and DHS’s credibility and capability to implement reforms announced in the fall.

Currently there are 10-11 million unauthorized immigrants, countless legal immigrants who are deportable because of our harsh laws and who knows how many employers breaking the law by employing unauthorized workers. In addition, there are smugglers, traffickers, people who manufacture and sell fake documents, and the many others who profit from a broken system. Until we have comprehensive immigration reform, ICE is going to be saddled with an enormous list of targets, and many people watching to see how they’re going to tackle it. If they want big numbers, they can achieve big numbers. But that won’t make us any safer or make the system any better. In any case the Administration and ICE have to figure out what their enforcement strategy is, articulate it clearly and consistently, and resist the urge to change it on a dime to please “enforcement-only” types who will never support comprehensive reform.

Photo by martanoz.