John T. Morton, in Los Angeles for a tour, says focus for new administration will be on employers of illegal immigrants

In his first Southern California tour, the new head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement touted what he called a more efficient strategy to target those in the country illegally and the employers who hire them.

John T. Morton, in Los Angeles today for a meet-and-greet with local media, plans to meet with local law enforcement officials, immigration advocates and others on his way to San Diego. “We’re far better off if we have open communication with people who care about what we do,” said Morton, who has already met with Mexican leaders. “… They have an important perspective.”

Morton, appointed three months ago to assistant secretary of Homeland Security for ICE, held a variety of positions at the Department of Justice and former immigration and Naturalization Service before taking the helm.

Perhaps the biggest shift under the new administration is refocusing immigration enforcement’s aim on worksite enforcement, Morton said.

The emphasis will be on planned audits of employers who hire illegal workers on a large scale, not the immigration raids done under the previous administration that targeted employees more than their employers, Morton said. “If you’re going to make real change you need to focus on employers,” he said. “If you’re going to have real change you need to make sure that the worksite community is complying with the laws.”

Morton also mentioned the Secure Communities program — a national program that runs the fingerprints of inmates through federal databases in the hopes of finding suspected criminals who may be in the country illegally. So far only a handful of counties in California, including Ventura, are using the program. A roll-out will become available for Orange County some time in the future but no date has been set. “We’re focusing on the worst of the worse… we’re focusing on those who are more serious offenders,” Morton said.

Morton emphasized that agents will still enforce the law. That means those in the country illegally without criminal convictions will still be eligible for deportation but not a priority for the agency.

He said the Secure Communities program is a more technologically savvy version of the 287G program, which essentially deputizes local law enforcement to conduct immigration enforcement. The new program may eventually lessen the need for the current program in such places as the Orange County Sheriff’s Department jail.

The communities program will likely net more people who are in the country illegally than the current 287G program, he said. However, some critics say it has been difficult to deport everyone who is identified in areas that already have the program up and running. “The reality of the situation is that we don’t presently have resources to respond to every single person we’ve identified,” Morton said.

In addition, Morton made it a point to reiterate what he said during his confirmation hearings about quotas for illegal immigrant detainees some officials had set within the agency. “We don’t have quotas anymore,” he said. “I don’t think law enforcement programs should be based on hard numbers at the end of the day.”