For the last two years, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been spinning a good yarn—that it’s keeping Americans more safe by pursuing those who are truly dangerous.  Today, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John Morton was quoted in the New York Times saying ICE has a “focus on deporting immigrants convicted of serious crimes.”  To his credit he issued a series of memos dating back to summer 2010 explaining that immigration officers and prosecutors should prioritize finite enforcement resources on pursuing serious offenders only.  But why then does the reality on the ground seem so far from the rhetoric?

Today, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) released a report, Immigration Enforcement Off Target: Minor Offenses with Major Consequences, drawn from 127 cases submitted by AILA attorneys.  The report describes people from all over America being picked up by local police for minor offenses—like loitering or failing to signal before changing lanes—or no offense at all.  No matter the reason for the stop, all were referred to ICE or Customs and Border patrol (CBP) and all were put in removal proceedings.  In most cases the offense (or lack thereof) was so trivial as to betray the real motive for the stop—namely to question someone about their immigration status.  None of them was stopped or charged for anything that could be considered a “serious crime.”  In a few cases, police said they made the stop because the person “looked illegal.”

DHS is rapidly losing what little credibility it has in immigrant communities.  No one buys their claim to focus on dangerous criminals when they see good people in their communities—family members, neighbors, churchgoers—shaken down by local police and deported by the feds.  ICE statistics bear this out:  Nearly 60 percent of all deported under the controversial Secure Communities program were convicted of only minor offenses or no criminal offense at all.

Even worse, in cases involving racial profiling or other abuses by local police, the federal government should be taking action against the local law enforcement agency rather than sanctioning unacceptable police behavior by pursuing deportation.  When ICE and CBP do pursue such cases, they undermine the Obama Administration’s public declarations that it will not tolerate racial profiling.

So where is DHS going wrong?  The main problem highlighted in AILA’s report is DHS’s failure to screen all referrals from local law enforcement to ensure they fall within DHS priorities.  DHS should not expend resources pursuing individuals charged with or convicted of misdemeanors, unless they pose a threat to public safety or national security.  Without such systems, federal immigration officers are being pulled in different directions, responding to thousands of local referrals.  DHS is losing control of immigration enforcement by relying on local law enforcement to control who DHS will target.   DHS cannot regain control unless it is willing to make real, substantive changes to the way it conducts immigration enforcement.  At this point memos and public statements are simply not enough.

The tens of thousands of harmless individuals being swept onto a virtual conveyor belt to deportation should be an embarrassment to DHS, ICE and CBP.  Federal immigration officers should not be chasing after low-priority cases and should not become conduits for racial profiling and other civil rights violations.

The anger and fear is rising in immigrant communities.  If there is any question how seriously immigrant communities view this issue, look at the fierce opposition to DHS’s flagship Secure Communities program which critics say is sweeping up noncriminals.  The program is now facing protests in several cities where a task force is holding public hearings.  Three governors, several members of Congress and law enforcement leaders have openly opposed it.

DHS can no longer delay making real changes.  It should ensure that enforcement priorities are on target or stop making promises it can’t keep.

Photo by rgmcfadden.