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I Don't Get No Respect, I Tell Ya

with Courtney Pitman

The Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement division just can’t catch a break lately. Amid an extremely partisan national debate, this unit has deported more unauthorized immigrants than any other administration, a fact that immigrant advocates decry as too harsh, and anti-immigration groups seem to overlook during their criticism of Obama’s inaction on immigration enforcement.

Further, the administration’s signature effort in immigration enforcement, Secure Communities, is facing increasing opposition on a seemingly daily basis. The program intended to take the pressure off of local enforcement agencies by requiring that fingerprints of all arrested individuals be shared with ICE, who issues a detainer for those in the country illegally and deports them, prioritizing the removal of dangerous criminals. However, critics have continually pointed out that the more than 25% of the people deported have no criminal conviction at all.

Citing these numbers and negative effects on community policing as unauthorized immigrants are afraid to report crimes, several localities tried to opt-out of the program in the latter half of 2010. After months of conflicting information, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano confirmed in April that local governments cannot choose to remove themselves from the program. Apparently missing the notice, Governor Pat Quinn announced in May that he was removing Illinois from the program, followed by similar announcements from the Governors of New York and Massachusetts over the ensuing month.

Facing this escalating pressure, ICE Director John Morton did something surprising for a federal official. On June 17 he issued a memo specifically describing who has the powers to use prosecutorial discretion and provided specific considerations for when to use this discretion in the case of deporting unauthorized immigrants. Not exactly an admission of a faulty program, but at the very least it is a concession of room for improvement. The Secure Communities website even has a section detailing this titled “What’s New.”

Although some have lauded the move as a step in the right direction, others have pointed out the gnawing issue beneath the positive PR move – the memo itself has no teeth behind it. It may suggest that agents give special consideration to length of time in the U.S., pursuit of education, and military stints, but it carries no more weight than suggestion in the practical sense. In fact, the ICE union has already denounced the memo, and union leaders have issued a no confidence vote in Morton, indicating an extremely disparate stance between the leaders in DC and agents on the ground.

In yet another blow to ICE’s flailing attempts to enforce immigration law through Secure Communities, the Philadelphia City Council voted unanimously to end their participation in the program exactly one week later.

Sounds like a sketch by Rodney Dangerfield.