For nearly a year now, the Obama Administration has promised to streamline the immigration enforcement system, focusing on serious criminals. Last week and weekend, Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducted a massive national sweep that that shook immigrant communities across the country. For ICE it was a show of force to demonstrate its commitment to targeting criminals and threats. But as has been the case since ICE began to shift its priorities to target "criminals," it has simply not been possible for the agency to operate as a finely tuned machine.
ICE says the "Cross Check" raid, which swept through all 50 states and netted over 3,100 detentions, was its largest operation ever. The raids were followed by laudatory news stories about the dangerous criminals who’ve now been removed. Indeed, ICE’s figures report that nearly 90 percent of those detained had criminal histories. Yet as usual there remain questions of about who in fact the raids targeted, what their crimes were, and whether it’s ever possible for ICE to target its enforcement as long as it’s deporting historic numbers of people.
"The results of this targeted enforcement operation underscore ICE’s ongoing commitment and focus on the arrest and removal of convicted criminal aliens and those that game our nation’s immigration system," ICE Director John Morton said in a statement sent to press.
"These are people we do not want roaming our streets," he said.
Yet ICE’s numbers show that fewer than half of those detained in the sweeps were convicted of felonies. ICE’s press release includes a list of the worst of these: a man wanted for murder in Jamaica, a Cambodia man convicted of manslaughter, a murderer from Mexico. But following the highlights reel, the data gets fuzzy. Felons, of course, are not all murders; crossing the border after a previous deportation is now counted as a felony offense that carries jail time. Nearly 700 of those counted as criminals are people whose violation is that they failed to leave the country after they were ordered to do so. And 559 were "illegal re-entrants," people who were deported before but have returned.
Many of these people refuse to leave or come back to the United States because their families, homes, jobs and communities are here.
On a recent reporting trip to the border, a man named Lalo told me that he’d recently been deported from Columbus, Ohio after a cop pulled him over and hauled him into the station for driving without a license. He was quickly moved to immigration detention and deported. When I met him, he was making plans to cross back into the United States. "My whole family is there. I moved there when I was a kid and I don’t know anybody here," he said. He supported his teenage sister and mother and they want him to come back. "They’re going to lose their apartment if I can’t pay rent."
Were Lalo to make it back into the United States and find himself the target of an ICE sweep, he’d be listed among the murderers.
The "Cross Check" raids last week are ultimately only a small part of ICE enforcement infrastructure. The bulk of ICE’s detention efforts are much less spectacular– no armed ex-Marines on 5am stakeouts. Rather, ICE has poured most of its energy into programs that silently pick non citizens out of local criminal justice systems. Secure Communities, ICE’s flagship enforcement program, checks the immigration status of anyone booked into a local jail. Like its claims about the recent raids, ICE says Secure Communities targets serious criminals. As one ICE agent interviewed by the LA Times said, "The days of the old INS raids, of going to Home Depot and getting day laborers, we don’t do that anymore."
Yet, advocates, researchers and journalists continue to document that for every person with a felony conviction, Secure Communities deports someone whose violation was crossing the border after a previous deportation or getting pulled over too many times for driving without a license.
And it’s worth noting that even if ICE were able to target only serious criminals, the policy would still not be a clear moral success. The LA Times describes one scene in Los Angeles. At 6am a group of ICE officers stake out in front of the home of a man who spent three years in jail back in the mid-90s for "manufacturing and delivery of narcotics." The man was deported then, but he came back. The LA Times reports:
At 7:42 a.m., he walks out of his home with three children who look like they are on their way to school. He’s wearing a shirt that says "No Fear" and has a blue WWE backpack slung over his shoulders.
"Here we go," an agent says on the radio.
The SUVs and a car with lights pull up in front of the home. Two agents walk up to the man. They tell the older child that they need to talk with their father about an immigration issue and ask him to take the younger two children inside. He complies.
"I want to talk to my daughter," he says. "Nini! Nini!"
The children watch from behind a screen door. Their grandmother comes to the door and stands near them.
The man was hauled in and detained. For ICE, he’s squarely among the "people we do not want roaming our streets." For his children, the story sounds to have very different meaning. A criminal conviction from 17 years ago, likely before any of them were born, just led to their family being ripped apart.