Noel Marie Laplume

10/12/10

In recent months, there has been a lot of hype and criticism over the established immigration policies amidst the controversial- and by some accounts draconian- attempt taken on by Arizona’s state legislature to reform its immigration policy. President Obama’s comments on the situation stated how it threatened “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.” In the end, even though an injunction temporarily prevented the most controversial parts of the bill from being instituted, the ripple effects this event set in motion brought to light the deep fissure that exists among Americans, one that is palpable and will remain indelible in the nation’s psyche.

There are presently two federal agencies that oversee the nation’s overburdened and troubled immigration system: First, the Department of Homeland Security, consisting of both the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement- otherwise known as ICE- enforces immigration law, and the Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, tasked with accepting and adjudicating applications for immigration benefits. Second, the Department of Justice consisting of the Executive Office for Immigration Review which is the Immigration Courts. As of late, cities with large populations typically have courtrooms that are swamped under a backlog, having reached a record in June of 247,922 cases. According to officials, the average waiting time for cases in those courts is 459 days, but immigration lawyers say they are currently waiting as long as two years to get a hearing date in some especially crowded immigration courts.

In an effort to provide some relief, the Department of Homeland Security- under the directives of the Obama administration- has shifted its focus away from the worksite raids and sweeps employed during George W. Bush’s presidency, and has instead focused their efforts on deporting criminals and creating less prison-like detention settings. ICE’s new approach is part of a broad shift in priorities at the agency that is geared towards catching and deporting immigrants who have been convicted of crimes or pose a national security threat. The policy- announced in an Aug. 20 memorandum from John Morton, the director of the agency, encourages ICE officers and lawyers to use their authority to dismiss and cancel the deportation proceedings of cases involving detainees who don’t have legal status but have active applications in the system to become legal residents. The basis of this depends on the immigrants having no criminal records and the determination that they stand a strong chance of having their residence applications approved. The policy is meant to curtail a major inefficiency that has led to an unnecessary pileup of cases in the immigration courts where it has been reported there is at least 17,000 cases that could be eliminated form their docket if ICE dismissed deportations of immigrants. This, of course, is intended for people who have a path to legalize their status, and does not in itself create a new path to legalization for anyone. Such cases may include those involving marriages to U.S. citizens, while resting upon the consideration of their likelihood to achieve legal status. If the immigrant’s application for legal residence were ultimately denied, ICE could then reinstate the deportation proceedings.

In pursuit of this new directive, Immigration enforcement officials have started to cancel the deportations of thousands of immigrants they have detained. In response, current and former ICE attorneys in New York and other offices nationwide have expressed their anger at having been instructed to drop efforts to deport some immigrants. These new operatives have also caused a rift amongst political appointees and career officials over how to enforce laws and handle detainees facing deportation. Internal conflicts have grown increasingly public over the plans ICE has to expand a risk assessment tool to guide agents on detention decisions, to cut down transfers of detained immigrants, and to open more “civil” detention facilities- what field directors call “soft” detention. One of the new civil detention sites, the James Musick Facility, is a non-working farm near Los Angeles, and other facilities are expected to open shortly in locations such as Miami.

Although this reform in policy drew praise from immigrant advocates, who called it a common-sense strategy, it was denounced by several Republicans as evidence that the Obama administration was weakening enforcement and making it easier for illegal immigrants to remain in the country. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) commented by saying, ” Actions like this demoralize ICE agents who are trying to do their job and enforce the law. Unfortunately, it appears this is more evidence that the Obama administration would rather circumvent Congress and give a free pass to illegal immigrants who have already broken our law. ” Evidence, though, proves that comments of this nature are based on erroneous data, and are merely aimed at wrongfully denouncing the current administration’s policies as lax and inconclusive.

Although some critics may be quick to form speculative suppositions, statistical data shows that in the last fiscal year, ICE removed a record 389,000 illegal aliens from the U.S., 136,000 of whom were criminals. And so far this fiscal year, a record 170,000 criminals have been removed and have placed more people- criminal and non-criminal- in immigration proceedings than ever before. A senior White House official, acknowledging the rift between ICE leadership and employees said, “The call from the left is John Morton is too tough. The guy is leading the effort to remove more people from the country than ever before. That others say he’s soft on enforcement strikes me as remarkable. At the end of the day, it’s about sound law-and-order principles, not decisions based on the political wind.”

But it is no secret that many states, especially those who view high immigration rates as an aching thorn, have decided to take matters into their own hands. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, States across the country have proposed or enacted hundreds of bills addressing immigration since 2007, which was the last time a federal effort to reform immigration law collapsed. Last year, there were a record number of laws enacted (222) and resolutions (131) in 48 states. The friction between Federal and State legislatures, along with that of the agency’s leadership and managers tasked with instituting the changes reflects the nation’s split over immigration. The criticisms of ICE illustrate the obstacles the Obama administration must navigate in selling the changes to the ranks while trying to appear both tough on enforcement and serious about fixing the nation’s immigration laws. It is a barometer of how difficult it is to make change and how the agencies have to really work at it internally as well as externally for improved cohesion. The dissension, fostered by the country’s polarization over immigration, is a product of legislative inaction. Congress hasn’t moved forward with the legislation that the administration envisioned, which puts ICE in the middle of the fray. Regrettably, the only thing happening with immigration in the country is crude enforcement, not real reform.

Amid this broad spectrum of disparate views, the need for comprehensive immigration reform addressing the fates of the currently estimated 12 million people living in the U.S. with an illegal status, is becoming an inescapable reality. Though ideological differences pose a challenge, they are not insurmountable. Until then, and despite the internal rumblings, the agencies shall remain committed to reform and will strive to implement present goals, while awaiting a new directive. One can only hope that in the future there be a uniform immigration policy, one that does not sway depending on the present political clout. We must always remembers that behind these crude statistics, there are thousands of hard-working and civically engaged families whose members are suffering daily the practical consequences of the legislative stalemate of Washington’s inertia in this crucial issue for our nation.