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Arecent report by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, found that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 96,000 illegal immigrants from 2003 through 2008. The number, although large, wasn't surprising. After all, the Bush administration had beefed up ICE's budget and staffing in order to apprehend more illegal immigrants with criminal records, a top administration priority.
What does raise eyebrows, though, was that almost three-quarters of those arrested by ICE's fugitive operations teams did not have criminal records. In other words, the agency, brawny with hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding and a 1,300% increase in staffing, was nabbing lots of waiters and car-washers whose only crime beyond their illegal entry was to have ignored a deportation order. Not exactly high security threats.
How did this happen? In 2006, immigration officials raised arrest quotas for fugitives by a factor of eight, and then eliminated a requirement that 75% of those arrested had to be wanted for crimes other than entering or remaining in the country illegally. ICE officials say that when the agency targets a criminal fugitive, it often chances on other immigrants eligible for deportation, making it relatively easy to boost the arrest rate.
We're not suggesting that ICE should look the other way when it finds illegal immigrants. Rather, we're arguing for a renewed emphasis on the most dangerous criminals. Under ICE policies, illegal immigrants are targeted for arrest based on the dangers they are thought to pose. In Category 1 are those who pose threats to national security. They are followed by those considered threats to the community, fugitives who are violent criminals, fugitives with criminal records and, last, in Category 5, immigrants with no known offenses other than being here illegally. That is a logical set of priorities, but they clearly aren't being followed. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has issued directives for an assessment of the fugitive operations program, and we hope it will bring ICE back to its previous mission.
Deportations won't solve the nation's immigration problem. For all of ICE's efficiency -- the number of people with outstanding deportation orders is down from a high of 634,000 in 2007 to 554,000 -- there are still 11 million or so illegal immigrants to go. A smarter approach can be seen in ICE's efforts to deport prison inmates; that rids the nation, at least temporarily, of felons. If the top priority is security, as it should be, such programs are more productive than wasteful, punitive roundups of nannies and gardeners.