U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently announced that it would pull 150 agents from desk jobs and add them to Fugitive Operations Teams—teams created to locate and detain “fugitive immigrants” who pose a threat to the nation or the community or who have a violent criminal history—in order to find and deport additional “criminal aliens.” According to the LA Times, ICE reported it was “experiencing a shortfall in criminal removals for the fiscal year” and need to increase the numbers. While it’s a good idea for ICE to use limited resources pursuing serious criminals, the reality is that ICE’s definition of “criminal alien” is very broad and the Fugitive Ops Team end up deporting unauthorized immigrants who pose no threat to the community.

“Fugitives immigrants” are defined as immigrants with outstanding orders of deportation who have not been deported. In some cases, these immigrants have fled, but in many others, they were unaware that they had a deportation order or the order was sent to an incorrect address. The Fugitive Ops Teams, however, frequently go beyond their mission of targeting dangerous fugitives.

According to a 2009 report by the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), while the number of immigrants apprehended by Fugitive Ops teams had increased, they have netted fewer violent criminals and arrested greater numbers of unauthorized immigrants with no criminal history. Many of those arrested were “ordinary status violators”—individuals whom the teams believe are unauthorized or in violation of immigration laws, but who have not been charged with anything.

MPI concluded that the Fugitive Operations Program “has failed to focus its resources on the priorities Congress intended when it authorized the program. In effect, [the program] has succeeded in apprehending the easiest targets, not the most dangerous fugitives.”

The LA Times also reported that each Fugitive Ops team has been given a new goal of arresting 50 suspects per month. ICE denied having set quotas, but this is not the first time the issue of quotas has arisen. In 2010, the Washington Post reported that an ICE official issued a memo stating 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. Later that day, ICE issued a statement clarifying that the internal memo did not reflect their policies and was sent without proper authorization, and that ICE remained “strongly committed to carrying out [its] priorities to remove serious criminal offenders first and [they] definitely do not set quotas.”

The Obama administration has made many statements about focusing resources and prioritizing the deportation of serious criminals. However, we’ve seen again and again that many of those categorized as serious criminals have not been convicted of serious or violent crimes, and some have no criminal convictions.

Furthermore, it should raise eyebrows when ICE claims it’s falling behind on deportations and needs to deport more people. There’s an inherent inconsistency between focusing on serious criminals and trying to maintain large numbers of deportations. Increasing the number of deportations all too often means deporting immigrants who are not serious criminals.

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