Finding “Criminal Aliens”: Turning Haystacks into Needles

By Michelle Chen Sep 19, 2009

The Obama administration has promised to streamline immigration enforcement by targeting actual criminal offenders, as opposed to just civil immigration law violations (think more smuggled oozies, fewer expired tourist visas). But in Iowa, according to an investigation by the Des Moines Register, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) really needs to work on its aim:

The numbers show 67 percent of those detained—84 of 125 people from February to May this year — had no previous criminal offenses…. One-third of those arrested were not considered fugitives, the new statistics show. People are categorized as fugitives if they did not heed a previous court order to leave the country.

ICE spokesperson Tim Counts acknowledged that the vast majority of "fugitives" were "non-criminals," but said, "While we focus on the worst offenders, we are charged with enforcing the nation’s immigration laws." Yet, like the term "illegal," the definition of criminality has become increasingly muddled as federal and local agencies stretch their immigrant dragnet. The Register investigation echoes a recent study on the impact of ICE’s “home raids” in New York. Cardozo Law School researchers found that many immigrants have been busted in their own homes using brutal and probably unconstitutional tactics:

Despite the purported focus of ICE home raid operations, the report concludes that the large majority (approximately two-thirds) of people arrested during home raids are not dangerous targets but rather are mere civil immigration violators who are in the wrong place at the wrong time — people who have, for example, overstayed their visas.

Of all of ICE’s programs for cracking down on undocumented immigrants, 287(g) is perhaps the most notorious, thanks to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s camera-ready reign of terror in Arizona. And if you liked 287(g), you’ll love CAP. The Criminal Alien Program, according to the ICE website, aims to minimize public safety risks by “identifying criminal aliens who are incarcerated within federal, state and local facilities, thereby ensuring that they are not released into the community by securing a final order of removal prior to the termination of their sentence.” A study released this week by the Warren Institute at University of California-Berkeley reveals that In Irving, Texas, police working under CAP aren’t so great at identifying dangerous criminals, but they sure know how to identify aliens:

[O]nce CAP was implemented in Irving, felony charges only accounted for 2% of ICE detainers, while 98% of ICE detainers were issued for individuals charged with misdemeanor offenses…. with the 24-hour access to ICE, local police arrested Hispanics for Class-C misdemeanor offenses in significantly higher numbers than Whites and African-Americans. The Class-C misdemeanor offense — the least serious class of misdemeanor — affords officers a substantial amount of discretion in the decision to stop, investigate and/or arrest local residents.

Such figures suggest that ICE and its local minions are either unconscionably incompetent, or—as the Warren Institute posits— shrewder than activists would like to believe:

These arrests represent one part of an implicit, but relatively clear logic: the higher the number of Hispanic arrests, the larger the pool of Hispanic detainees; the larger the pool of detainees, the more illegal immigrants that can be purged from the city via the CAP screening system.

With enough funding and enough political room to play, even a pointless bureaucracy will eventually find some justification for its existence. If there aren’t enough “bad” illegal aliens to hunt down, why stop at just the bad ones, or just the illegal ones, for that matter? In some towns, one less Latino is one less Latino, and whatever ends up on the police report is just an afterthought. Image: Kansas City Star