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Top ICE Lawyer Calls Immigration Policy a Balancing Act

By Eric Williamson

peter vincent

U.S. immigration policy is at a crossroads, said Peter Vincent ’95, a senior immigration official who spoke at the Law School in September.

“We are at the crux of a very large debate right now regarding what we are as Americans, what our national identity is, and what it should be, for the next hundred years or so, and what it means to allow individuals to come to the United States, or stay in the United States, and under what terms,” Vincent said during a talk sponsored by the school’s Immigration Law Program.

Vincent is the principal legal advisor for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where he oversees the largest legal program within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), supervising nearly 1,000 attorneys and an additional 350 legal and mission-support specialists who represent ICE in removal proceedings.

He spoke to students about his unique vantage point in the continuing debate over illegal immigration.

“With ICE, we are guaranteed to upset 50 percent of the people 100 percent of the time,” Vincent said. “There is virtually nothing we do that does not get one side of the aisle upset at us. And I can tell you that is especially true with programs like Secure Communities [ICE’s effort to identify illegal immigrants through law enforcement’s sharing and matching of fingerprint information] or initiatives like prosecutorial discretion.”

In fact, according to Vincent, prosecutorial discretion is central to the recent debate over immigration, and central to ICE’s ability to exercise its law enforcement mandate—choosing which cases to drop or pursue based on available resources and the relative threat an illegal immigrant may pose to the public.

Critics of prosecutorial discretion argue ICE is paving the way for amnesty by allowing illegal aliens to live and work in the country uncontested. But there are 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, Vincent said, and his agency only has the resources to remove about 400,000 people per year. As a result, he said, ICE’s position is that deportation of otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants should be a lesser priority.

“It makes sense for us in allocating how we prioritize our resources to focus on those cases that really subject our nation and our communities to the most harm,” Vincent said. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ’83 reiterated the administration’s position on discretion in an August 18 letter to Sen. Richard Durbin and other U.S. senators.

The letter identified which cases are deemed to be high priority for ICE, including those with implications for public safety or national security, and which cases are deemed to be low priority, such as those involving families with children, or cases involving adults who have been in the country since childhood.

According to Vincent, the approximately 300,000 cases currently on the docket will be reviewed to see if they can be dismissed as being low priority and “sympathetic,” a buzzword he used frequently in discussing what he sees as ICE’s humanitarian role, in addition to its law enforcement directive.

An interagency task force made up of representatives from the Department of Justice and DHS is currently reviewing the process, he said.

Napolitano’s letter was a response to Durbin’s Dream Act legislation, which would provide a conditional permanent residency track for illegal immigrant children.

But some critics read Napolitano’s well-publicized missive as an attempt by President Barack Obama to help shore up the Latin vote during the next election.

Vincent dismissed “cynics” who question his agency’s motives and said prosecutorial discretion has always been in use by the agency, despite its relatively recent elucidation before the public eye, and is the right of all law enforcement agencies. 

“I’m incredibly proud of the administration—the secretary and director—for taking a real risk on prosecutorial discretion,” he said.

Vincent has been the principal legal advisor for ICE since May 2009. He previously served as the U.S. assistant judicial attaché, then judicial attaché for the Justice Department in Bogota, Colombia, where he was responsible for the extradition of some of the world’s most dangerous drug traffickers. He started his career in public service with Legacy Immigration and Naturalization Service, which would soon be largely integrated under ICE and Homeland Security following the September 11 attacks. Read more about Vincent’s career, as well as those of fellow alumni, John Morton ’94 and Napolitano, in the archived spring 2010 issue.