WASHINGTON — In an aggressive effort to boost deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun to increase by nearly 25% the number of agents tasked with finding and deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records, pulling 150 officers from desks and backroom jobs to add extra fugitive search teams around the country.
The plan was launched when the number of deportations slumped after several years of growth, partly due to the drop in illegal immigration along the Southwest border. But critics, including some inside ICE, denounced the effort as politically inspired to help President Obama's reelection campaign.
The move, which began without public notice on May 14, calls for increasing the number of fugitive operations teams to 129 from 104. Each team has been given a goal of arresting 50 suspects per month, according to documents obtained by The Times, although ICE officials insisted Friday that no quotas were set for the teams.
An early draft of the plan says ICE is "experiencing a shortfall in criminal removals for the fiscal year," and called for using 300 Border Patrol agents, dressed in ICE uniforms, to close the gap. The plan was scaled back to 150 ICE officers after objections were raised by union organizers for the Border Patrol.
The fugitive teams were instructed for the first time this month to focus chiefly on finding and deporting illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors, multiple immigration violations, or having used fraudulent documents, and not on broader categories of illegal immigrants.
ICE officials are also reviewing pending deportation proceedings to look for those who do not fall into those categories and pose no security risks. So far, about 10% of the cases reviewed have been placed under an administrative hold.
The stepped-up effort may prove politically sensitive in an election year with both parties scrambling for voters in states where immigration issues are important, including Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
Obama, who has drawn strong support from Latino voters, is under pressure from Latino activists to find more humane ways to enforce federal immigration laws and protect families with deep roots in America. Focusing on criminal immigrants tends to avoid that issue.
Republican leaders, including likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney, have demanded greater efforts to identify and deport anyone who is in the U.S. illegally, including those who have lived and worked here for years, not just those found guilty of committing crimes.
ICE Director John Morton defended the program Friday as "the best way to use our limited resources" against those who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
"We changed agency policy to focus fugitive operations more on criminal offenders," Morton said in a telephone interview. "This is part of a permanent restructuring of agency resources to meet the highest priority of removing serious offenders. … We think that is the right call because at the end of the day public safety is our goal."
In a memo last year, Morton wrote that ICE prosecutors could use their discretion as to whether or not to seek deportation of people with strong family ties in the U.S., including college students and members of the military.
After Morton gave the memo to a congressional committee, Republicans criticized the Obama administration for trying to use back channels to enact the Dream Act. In 2010, Congress narrowly defeated the measure, which would have created a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors.
Some ICE agents condemned the latest plan as politically inspired, rather than a more efficient use of resources.
"Our officers in the field are being told by senior-level managers that this is politically motivated to bump up the numbers during an election year for the Obama administration," said Chris Crane, president of the National ICE Council, a union that represents approximately 7,300 ICE employees.
"During this administration, every year we are restricted from doing our jobs during the year and then at the end of the fiscal year we have to pull some kind of stunt to pull our numbers back up," said Crane.
Obama administration officials say they forcibly removed a record number of people last year, some 396,906 in all, including 216,698 criminal immigrants, or about 55% of the total.
ICE has removed 127,044 criminal illegal immigrants this fiscal year, officials said. That is behind last year's rate by approximately 12,000, or 9%.
Immigrant advocates worry that the extra ICE teams will sweep up people who do not pose a danger and should not be a priority for deportation.
"I applaud the agency for continuing to try and focus its resources, but they ought to also come up with better definitions with what is a criminal and what is a fugitive, and Congress has to do its part to pass immigration laws that fit with our reality today," said Ben Johnson, executive director at the American Immigration Council, an immigration advocacy group based inWashington, D.C.
"We are talking about a labeling game ICE has been playing," said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Assn. "ICE's definition of who counts as a criminal includes people who have driven without a license or driven without insurance. Those certainly are not dangerous people."
ICE created eight fugitive operations teams in 2004 to help track down a backlog of an estimated 470,000 illegal immigrants who had ignored a final deportation notice from an immigration judge. The program has expanded dramatically.
The ICE teams find their targets using tips from law enforcement agencies as well as reports generated by investigators searching databases at a little-known support center in the town of Williston, Vt.
Doris Meissner, who was head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, said ICE was designed to enforce the law, not make immigration policy decisions.
"They are, at the end of the day, an enforcement agency," Meissner said. "But they are being asked to deal with the whole immigration problem and they are not equipped to do that."