WASHINGTON—One of the Trump administration’s main immigration goals is to end the practice of catch-and-release.
The same goal existed 12 years ago, in 2006, under former president George W. Bush, said Gary Mead, the former head of ICE’s enforcement and removal operations.
“At the time, one of our major objectives was to end the practice of catch-and-release, both in the interior and on the border,” Mead said during an event at Migration Policy Institute on May 8.
The practise of catch-and-release occurs when detention space is full. As more illegal immigrants enter the country and are apprehended by Border Patrol, they are handed to ICE, which is then forced to release the individual into the country with a court date in the future.
Mead said ICE had around 18,000 detainees in 2006 when he started, but it had increased to more than 34,000 by the time he left the agency in 2013.
But, he said, during the later years of the Obama administration, immigration enforcement was eroded.
“Many things that had been put in place years before [were] abandoned or greatly diminished.,” he said.
Obama’s immigration priorities continued to narrow towards the end of his presidency and by 2014, ICE agents were essentially instructed that large swathes of illegal immigrants were untouchable.
According to a new Migration Policy Institute (MPI) report released on May 8, 87 percent of the country’s illegal population were effectively protected from deportation under Obama’s relaxed priorities. Accordingly, arrests and deportations fell significantly.
President Donald Trump’s first priority has been to claw back enforcement levels to meet the standard set by the law.
“There’s simply a clarity of focus right now about what the job of an individual ICE officer is on the street,” Mead said.
He said that clarity existed in 2006, but was dramatically changed toward the end of the Obama administration. He said it’s a “monumental understatement” to say ICE is pleased with the change under the Trump administration.
Mead said immigration law is very clear, but was muddied during the Obama era.
“If someone is in this country illegally, they are subject to deportation. And there are very few ways that someone here illegally will be allowed to gain legal status. That is the law, period, end of story,” he said. “Their removal is not dependent upon committing some other crime or their personal situation.”
Even if an illegal immigrant has been working in the United States for 10 years and has a family, “it drives me crazy because it doesn’t matter—the law does not allow for those considerations,” he said.
Although the Trump administration has set enforcement priorities, it has been clear that no illegal alien is exempt from the law. ICE still prioritizes criminals, fugitives, and recent entrants.
Fugitives are those who have been through the immigration court system and a judge has ordered them removed from the country. ICE has started re-arresting the more than 500,000 fugitives in the United States, who can be deported within days.
The MPI report revealed several significant findings.
The first is that although Trump is trying to enforce immigration law, the nation’s 300 co-called sanctuary jurisdictions are hindering him—making it difficult for him to reach deportation levels achieved in the peak years of fiscal 2010 to 2011.
Deportations from the interior during Trump’s first year jumped significantly (37 percent) compared to the previous year, but it was still less than half of fiscal year 2011 (more than 220,000).
Sanctuary jurisdictions impact ICE operations mainly through the Secure Communities program, which was launched in 2008 and rolled out nationwide in 2013.
It is a nationwide fingerprinting database that local law enforcement can access when they book people into jail. The database matches fingerprints against FBI and Department of Homeland Security databases.
If an inmate’s fingerprints flagged them as an illegal alien, ICE was alerted and agents would place a detainer on that inmate. A detainer is a request to local law enforcement to alert ICE when the inmate was to be released, or to hold them for up to 48 hours beyond the time of release to enable a handover. That person was then placed into deportation proceedings.
Around 73 percent of all deportations in 2016 were triggered through the Secure Communities program.
Many sanctuary jurisdictions disrupt that process by banning local law enforcement from communicating and cooperating with ICE, except with illegal immigrants who have committed serious, often violent, crimes. In many areas, ICE agents, who used to freely operate within jails, have now been kicked out by sanctuary policies. Forced to locate and detain illegal aliens out in the community, ICE is expending more resources to achieve the same goal.
Politicians in sanctuary jurisdictions also argue that immigration enforcement is a federal matter, therefore local law enforcement doesn’t have the authority to enforce immigration law.
“And they’re right,” said Mead. “But I would argue that by picking and choosing (which almost all the jurisdictions do), which aliens they’re going to refer to ICE, they are in fact enforcing immigration law. They’re determining who should be removed. As compared to, if you refer everyone to ICE, it’s ICE’s decision, ICE’s problem, as to who gets removed, not the local law enforcement.”
ICE has responded by increasing its operations in sanctuary jurisdictions. In September last year, the agency announced that a four-day operation in sanctuary jurisdictions around the country netted 498 individuals from 42 countries for federal immigration violations.
Of the 498, 317 had criminal convictions, 68 were immigration fugitives, 104 were previously deported criminal aliens, and 18 were gang members or affiliates, according to ICE.
“Sanctuary jurisdictions that do not honor detainers or allow us access to jails and prisons are shielding criminal aliens from immigration enforcement and creating a magnet for illegal immigration,” said ICE Deputy Director Tom Homan. “As a result, ICE is forced to dedicate more resources to conduct at-large arrests in these communities.”
Politicians who support sanctuary policies often purport that they are essential to making illegal immigrants feel safe to report crime.
Higher Anxiety Levels
Ironically, the MPI report revealed that the level of anxiety in illegal immigrants in sanctuary jurisdictions is higher than those in non-sanctuary areas.
This is mostly due to ICE being forced to work out in the community because agents cannot pick up criminals in the jails anymore. ICE’s operations are targeted, but if agents encounter other illegal immigrants while out on an arrest, then that individual will be taken into custody, too.
Mead said he isn’t aware of any convincing evidence that immigration enforcement makes communities less safe, particularly the use of detainers.
“Victims and witnesses of crime have nothing to fear from ICE. [They’re] not arrested by local police and they’re not fingerprinted,” he said. “If you are not fingerprinted or put into a local jail, you will not be encountered by ICE.”
He said the idea that illegal immigrants can’t report crime without fear of deportation “just doesn’t have any basis in reality.”
“If you or one of your loved ones or one of your neighbors is the victim of a crime, small or big, that was committed by someone who had been arrested by local law enforcement and wasn’t referred to ICE—it doesn’t make you feel any better,” Mead said. “Because while there may have been some other drunk driver out there, or there may have been some other purse snatcher out there, it definitely wouldn’t have been the person that ICE had removed.”
The third major finding of the report is the disparity in immigration enforcement around the country.
“We now have a phenomenon of swiss cheese of immigration enforcement around the country,” said Muzaffar Chishti, report author and director of MPI’s office at NYU School of Law.
“As we found in our study, the fate of an unauthorized or otherwise removable immigrant depends on where he’s apprehended, not what he has done.”
Muzaffar said if an illegal alien is apprehended for a traffic violation in Georgia, Texas, or Tennessee, it can result in an arrest and deportation. But, in California, Chicago, or New York City, an alien could be arrested for a variety of crimes and still not be taken into ICE custody.
“Such unevenness in enforcement landscape threatens federal preeminence in immigration enforcement policy,” he said.