In a bid to remake the enforcement of federal immigration laws, the Obama administration is deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants and auditing hundreds of businesses that blithely hire undocumented workers.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration’s 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. The pace of company audits has roughly quadrupled since President George W. Bush’s final year in office.
The effort is part of President Obama’s larger project “to make our national laws actually work,” as he put it in a speech this month at American University. Partly designed to entice Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform, the mission is proving difficult and politically perilous.
Obama is drawing flak from those who contend the administration is weak on border security and from those who are disappointed he has not done more to fulfill his campaign promise to help the country’s estimated 11 million illegal residents. Trying to thread a needle, the president contends enforcement — including the deployment of fresh troops to the Mexico border — is a necessary but insufficient solution.
A June 30 memorandum from ICE director John Morton instructed officers to focus their “principal attention” on felons and repeat lawbreakers. The policy, influenced by a series of sometimes-heated White House meetings, also targets repeat border crossers and declares that parents caring for children or the infirm should be detained only in unusual cases.
“We’re trying to put our money where our mouth is,” Morton said in an interview, describing the goal as a “rational” immigration policy. “You’ve got to have aggressive enforcement against criminal offenders. You have to have a secure border. You have to have some integrity in the system.”
Morton said the 400,000 people expected to be deported this year — either physically removed or allowed to leave on their own power — represent the maximum the overburdened processing, detention and immigration court system can handle.
The Obama administration has been moving away from using work-site raids to target employers. Just 765 undocumented workers have been arrested at their jobs this fiscal year, compared with 5,100 in 2008, according to Department of Homeland Security figures. Instead, officers have increased employer audits, studying the employee documentation of 2,875 companies suspected of hiring illegal workers and assessing $6.4 million in fines.
On the ground, a program known as Secure Communities uses the fingerprints of people in custody for other reasons to identify deportable immigrants. Morton predicts it will “overhaul the face of immigration.” The administration has expanded the system to 437 jails and prisons from 14 and aims to extend it to “every law enforcement jurisdiction” by 2013.
The Secure Communities project has identified 240,000 illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, according to DHS figures. Of those, about 30,000 have been deported, including 8,600 convicted of what the agency calls “the most egregious offenses.”