Despite a record number of removals in fiscal year 2010, GOP Senators Sessions, Cornyn, Kyl, Grassley, Hatch, Coburn and Graham fired off yet another letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano yesterday, accusing the administration of a “lax approach” to immigration enforcement and “selectively enforcing” immigration laws. The letter, which cites a Houston Chronicle article quoting nearly 400 dismissed removal cases in Houston immigration courts in recent months, follows new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) priorities of pursuing serious criminals and a countrywide systematic review of certain immigration court cases. The conservative Senators complaint, however, is not new. In fact, it’s just the latest in a string of letters accusing the administration of everything from “de facto amnesty” to giving detainees an “overly-comfortable place to reside.” The senators, it seems, are out for more than a fair, functioning and prioritized immigration enforcement system.

In August, ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton issued a memo directing legal counsel to review and terminate certain immigration court cases where the immigrant also had an application pending in front of US Citizenship and Immigration Services—the logic being that if their status is pending, dismissing the court case would avoid duplicating resources and move people through the system faster. The new policy—which ICE estimates may benefit 7,000 people—would not apply to serious criminals convicted of aggravated felonies or two or more felonies. Sens. Grassley, Sessions, et al., however, call ICE’s priority criteria “arbitrary” and blithely question the Department’s “commitment to enforcement.”

The ICE directive, along with other recently announced detention and removal policies, raises serious questions about your Departments commitment to enforce the immigration laws. It appears that your Department is enforcing the law based on criteria it arbitrarily chose, with complete disregard for the enforcement laws created by Congress. The repercussions of this decision extend beyond removal proceedings, because it discourages officers from even initiating new removal proceedings if they believe the case ultimately will be dismissed based on the new directive.

ICE responded:

The idea that DHS is engaged in ‘selective enforcement’ couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, this administration has fundamentally changed the way the federal government approaches immigration enforcement, doing more to keep criminal aliens who are threats to public safety—including murderers, rapists and child molesters—off our streets than ever before.

The idea of questioning the administration’s “commitment to enforcement” probably seems laughable to many immigration advocates, who continue to find that the Obama administration is obsessed with immigration enforcement—and see no real end in sight to enforcement-heavy strategies. In fiscal year 2010, for example, ICE boasted setting “a record for overall removals of illegal aliens”—392,000 removals nationwide, 195,000 of whom were convicted criminals. “The fiscal year 2010 statistics represent increases of more than 23,000 removals overall and 81,000 criminal removals compared to fiscal year 2008—a more than 70 percent increase in removal of criminal aliens from the previous administration.”

Furthermore, prioritizing serious criminals and streamlining immigration court cases is desperately needed. Just this week, Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) released their latest numbers on backlogged immigration cases. According to TRAC:

The number of cases awaiting resolution before the Immigration Courts reached a new all-time high of 261,083 by the end of September 2010. The case backlog has continued to grow — up 5.3 percent — since TRAC’s last report three months ago, and more than a third higher (40%) than levels at the end of FY 2008.

So if removals are up and apprehension levels are so high that the immigration courts are completely backlogged, what exactly do Senators Sessions, Cornyn, Kyl, Grassley, Hatch, Coburn and Graham mean when they question the administrations “commitment to enforcement?” Isn’t streamlining immigration cases to avoid wasting resources and duplicative processes a commitment to making our immigration system work?

Wringing hands and blowing smoke are always useful tactics of distraction, particularly when the facts don’t match the political point you want to make. The question is whether these Senators actually care about efficient and common sense enforcement of our laws, or would prefer to just play at blowing the Administration’s enforcement house down.

Photo by ashley rose.

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