Illegal immigration: Are Obama deportations truly aimed at 'criminals'?
US says it deported a record 216,000 'criminal aliens' in fiscal 2011, but immigration court statistics show a drop in criminal deportation proceedings from the Bush years. How do those square?
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That's the unresolved question.Skip to next paragraph
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While DHS says it's counting deportations of people with past criminal convictions, TRAC can't get access to detailed case data that would show whether deportees really are serious criminals or people with minor infractions that in the past may not have led to a deportation order. In other words, without more transparency, it's not clear whether the Obama administration is bolstering its claim of focusing on "the worst of the worst" by including in its data the very immigrants whom the White House insists it's not targeting.
"There are really an enormous amount of questions about what is actually going on, and it's very discouraging when law enforcement agencies, despite all the talk about transparency, are not providing data that they are collecting – data that everybody really needs to have to decide the very, very complicated policy issues that the country is facing," says Susan Long, director of TRAC, which tracks federal data through the Freedom of Information Act.
A DHS spokesman replied that agency officials spoke with TRAC on Nov. 11 about how to resolve how ICE tracks statistics. He also noted that the sheer volume of information requests may mean response delays, but to assume that those delays constitute a lack of transparency is "simply inaccurate."
While the criminal-alien data remain in question, however, there is a more solid verdict on what impact prosecutorial discretion has had on deportations.
ICE Director John Morton announced the policy shift in June, and the administration on Nov. 17 also began a training program to show immigration agents how to block deportation cases against some noncriminal illegal immigrants.
But so far, it may not have protected many of those "just looking to scrape together an income."
"The overwhelming conclusion is that most ICE offices have not changed their practices since the issuance of these new directives," states a November study of 252 immigration cases by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
That's due, in large part, to the culture of ICE, experts say. The ICE union has attacked the prosecutorial discretion policy, saying it undermines the focus on law and order.
Taking on ICE could boost Mr. Obama's 2012 prospects among Hispanics, says Allert Brown-Gort, director of the Institute of Latino Studies at Notre Dame University in Indiana. "Though he didn't pull out immigration reform ... serious prosecutorial discretion is the next best thing he can do," he says.
In the meantime, detailed immigration data could be damaging. The Obama administration "is basically letting ambiguity be its friend," says Professor Brown-Gort. "One of the reasons why the administration is being less than forthcoming is because they're really stuck between a rock and a hard place."