Criminals Are New Priority for U.S. Immigration Enforcement, ICE Director Says

Gil Siegel

John Morton '94, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said his agency is "redefining the face of immigration enforcement."

February 7, 2012

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is "redefining" its approach to enforcing the nation's immigration laws by targeting its efforts at specific groups of illegal immigrants — most notably those with a criminal record, ICE Director John Morton said Monday at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Morton, a 1994 alumnus of the Law School, told the crowd in Caplin Pavilion that his agency within the Department of Homeland Security maintains about 33,000 detention beds on any given day and has been deporting a record-breaking 400,000 people a year.

Drilling down beyond those statistics, however, and it becomes apparent that "what has been going on at ICE during this administration is much, much more profound," Morton said.

"We are literally redefining the face of immigration enforcement — a redefinition that for the first time commits the agency to enforcement that is measured, sensible and effective," he said.

ICE lacks the resources to deport more than the 400,000 people each year, a figure that represents only about 4 percent of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants present in the United States.

Given ICE's structural and budgetary limitations, Morton said, the agency must decide which groups should be the priority. In choosing these priorities, he said, ICE sought to emphasize good policy and good government.

"If ICE only has the resources to remove 400,000 people a year, the real question is: Who are those 400,000 people going to be?" Morton said. "To me, good policy and good government call for enforcement that promotes public safety, border security and the integrity of our immigration controls."

In practice, ICE is now primarily focused on deporting illegal immigrants who have committed crimes, those who recently crossed the border, and those who are flouting an immigration judge's order by fleeing law enforcement or by returning to the U.S. after being deported.

Over the past three years, Morton said, ICE has increased the number of criminals it has removed from the U.S. by more than 80 percent, from 114,000 in fiscal 2008 to 216,000 in the past year.

"I don't think we are that far removed from the day in which we remove a quarter of a million criminals each year," he said.

The removal of such a high number of criminal offenders is having a profound effect on public safety, he said.

"When we focus our enforcement efforts on criminals, we significantly disrupt [the] pattern of recidivism," he said. "If we identify offenders in prison while they're serving their time and remove them before they're released to the streets, there are no new offenses in that community from those removed. That's a really, really powerful force for public safety."

ICE is primarily identifying criminal offenders for possible deportation through its Secure Communities initiative, under which the FBI provides ICE with fingerprint information collected when someone is arrested. ICE checks the fingerprints against its database to determine if the person has a criminal record and is living in the country illegally.

So far, Secure Communities has been deployed in more than 2,000 jurisdictions in 43 states. The program is on track to be fully deployed in 2013.

"As Secure Communities reaches full deployment, I think you will see a continued increase in the number of criminal aliens removed by ICE with a corresponding downward pressure on the crime rate in the communities involved," he said.

At the same time, the number of non-criminal deportations is on the decline, he said.

In June, Morton issued a memo to ICE's legal team outlining the types of cases they should be pursuing and which they shouldn't. The low-priority cases, he said, include long-term residents with ties to the community, as well as those without a criminal record, those with children in school, those with mental or physical problems, young people present since age 15 who are pursuing higher education, victims of domestic violence, veterans and their families, and those over the age of 65.

"It doesn't mean we're not going to ever enforce the law against these people," he said. "But it means that they're not going to be within our priorities each year in deciding who the 400,000 will be."

Morton has also instructed ICE's lawyers to review the more than 300,000 pending cases in the immigration court system and identify which do not fall within the agency's enforcement priorities. So far, they have reviewed 120,000 cases and have 180,000 left to go.

"The immigrants in these closed cases are not going to be granted permanent status in the United States, but they will not be removed absent changed circumstances, such as a criminal arrest or conviction," he said. "In essence, we're going to suspend their removal."

Morton's talk was sponsored by the Law School's Student Legal Forum and the Immigration Law Program.


Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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