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Getting ICE right

July 8, 2010
Getting ICE right

“Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers should focus their limited resources on detaining and deporting immigrants that ‘pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety,’ or who are convicted of felonies or violent crimes,” said ICE assistant secretary John Morton in a landmark June 30 memorandum.

While the memo does not change law or set new regulations, it should shift policy within ICE, and if implemented by ICE officers, it represents a step toward a more civil and humane immigration system. Sadly, however, this shift is guided not by moral or ethical winds, but rather scant resources.

“Nothing in this memorandum should be construed to prohibit or discourage the apprehension, detention, or removal of other aliens unlawfully in the United States,” the memo states, only that those efforts “should not displace or disrupt the resources needed to remove aliens who are a higher priority.”

“Basically, the spirit here is that if they had the resources, they would deport everyone if they could,” says Stephen Manning, attorney at Immigrant Law Group.

While ICE officials had already been instructed to focus on apprehending “criminal aliens” – a propaganda term – this memo breaks from that divisive and vague language and lays out the specific criteria ICE agents should use when prioritizing their efforts.

“We are very skeptical of any ‘refocusing’ effort by ICE because history shows that rule of law principles are not part of ICE culture,” says Manning.

The top priority, Morton said, is the removal of undocumented immigrants “engaged in or suspected of terrorism or espionage, or who otherwise pose a danger to national security,” immigrants “convicted of crimes, with a particular emphasis on violent criminals, felons, and repeat offenders,” gang members, immigrants with outstanding criminal warrants and those who “pose a serious risk to public safety.”

The memo further breaks down how ICE officers should prioritize removing immigrants with criminal convictions, instructing officers to focus on people convicted of aggravated felonies, multiple or single felonies, or three or more criminal misdemeanors.

The memo also instructs ICE field directors not to devote their resources detaining immigrants “suffering from serious physical or mental illness, or who are disabled, elderly, pregnant, or nursing, or demonstrate that they are primary caretakers of children or an infirm person, or whose detention is otherwise not in the public interest.”

“This is a welcome first step,” Manning explains. “But it is just a first step. When 50 percent of non-citizens in immigrant detention under the Criminal Alien Program have no conviction, there is a long way to go.”

Immigrant Law Group has been critical in cooperating between local law enforcement and ICE, and through its outreach program Beyond Know Your Rights it has worked to help organize in the immigrant community and communicate rule of law strategies for preventing and redressing rights violations in detention and removal procedures.