A federal roundup of "criminal aliens" and major immigration law violators last week resulted in 3,168 arrests in all 50 states, the largest such operation ever, US immigration officials announced Monday.
Of illegal immigrants taken into custody during the six-day operation, dubbed "Cross Check," 2,834 had prior criminal convictions, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, at ICE's headquarters in Washington. Some 559 of those detained were illegal reentrants into the US who had previously been removed from the country, he said.
Illegal immigration, and what to do about some 11 million people living illegally in the United States, has long been a contentious issue – and one on which President Obama might be vulnerable with Latino voters during this election year. The Obama administration has made much of its record level of deportations, though it has sought to soften that hard-line statistic by targeting what it describes as "criminal aliens," or people who commit crimes other than entering the US without proper documentation.
In announcing the roundup, Mr. Morton vigorously defended the Obama administration’s immigration policies against critics on both the left and right. Those on the left charge that ICE’s stepped-up immigration enforcement is leading to the needless breakup of hundreds of thousands of families a year. Critics on the right charge that the Obama administration’s policy of prosecutorial discretion that focuses on deporting on criminal aliens is, in fact, a back-door amnesty program for most illegal immigrants.
“Good immigration enforcement is good use of limited federal resources. Contrary to the accusations of some, we are not refusing to enforce the law nor are we targeting families and low-priority cases. Instead, we are pursuing a sensible set of priorities,” Morton said.
The 50 million Hispanics in the US will be a major factor in November’s election. The Republican presidential primaries have featured very tough immigration-control language from the leading candidates, with front-runner and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney calling for illegal immigrants to self-deport.
One result: A recent Fox News poll found Mr. Obama leading Mr. Romney among Hispanic voters by 70 percent to 14 percent. In 2008, GOP presidential candidate John McCain received 31 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Morton, an Obama appointee, argued that “the border has never been safer” and that border apprehension figures are “at an all-time high.” He said that, due to the Obama administration’s changed priorities, “over half of those removed are now criminal offenders, up 89 percent since fiscal year 2008.”
Critics question some of ICE’s statistics, alleging that the agency is sensitive about upsetting Hispanic voters.
On the question of breaking up families, Morton said that while having a child born in the US cannot be a pass to commit illegal acts, “our policy is, where possible, to maintain family unity.”
ICE is currently reviewing 300,000 pending immigration cases, “to make sure we are focusing our resources on cases that make sense,” Morton said, adding that it is “a herculean task.” He said ICE is “identifying a significant number of cases for administrative closure.”
Morton acknowledges that the US immigration system needs to be fixed, something Congress has been unwilling to do in an election year. “There is no question that our system needs reform,” Morton said.