By Julia Preston on April 29, 2014
WASHINGTON — A program of cooperation between federal immigration authorities and state and local police departments has been effective at focusing deportations on immigrants with a criminal record, according to a report published Tuesday by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research organization here.
The report found that at least 75 percent of immigrants deported by the Obama administration in the last five years through the program, known as Secure Communities, had been convicted of crimes. The report did not include information on the severity of the crimes that led to deportation, but they included both misdemeanors and felonies.
While the report found “greater flexibility” with deportations in the interior of the country, it described a “near zero-tolerance system” at the borders, particularly with Mexico, where the administration has focused most of its efforts. At the border, the authorities are bringing charges against many more of those crossing illegally and applying fast-track procedures to expel them, with limited due process or screening to establish their histories.
As a result, there are “sharply different enforcement pictures” within the country and at the Southwest border, the institute found. Within the country, administration officials said, agents have been using prosecutorial discretion to focus on deporting illegal immigrants with a criminal record, among other priorities.
“What’s new is the way in which the administration has been very explicit in establishing where the priorities will be applied in the interior,” Doris Meissner, an author of the study, said in an interview. “There have been real impacts.”
President Obama has asked Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson to review enforcement policy to make deportations more “humane.” The report suggests that if Mr. Johnson looks primarily at deportations from the interior of the country he may have limited room to maneuver, as those deportations have already been significantly reduced.
The report helps to explain an outcry from immigrant advocates, who have accused the president of separating families of hard-working immigrants who pose no risk. Most immigrants deported in recent years — including a growing number of those stopped when trying to cross the border illegally — had lived for years in the United States, with jobs and families here.
“Even focused enforcement has a substantial impact on U.S.-citizen and immigrant families and communities because many unauthorized immigrants are deeply rooted in the United States,” the report says. Also, a fast-increasing share of the crimes that led to deportations, the report found, were victimless offenses related to immigration — mainly illegal crossing or evading a prior deportation order — and not directly to the public safety of American communities.
The report also provides fuel for Republicans, who have accused the president of gutting interior enforcement and allowing the Secure Communities program to bypass too many immigrants who are here illegally.
The 66-page report was written by Marc R. Rosenblum, a researcher at the Migration Policy Institute who worked with Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a Democrat, and Ms. Meissner, who led the immigration agency under President Bill Clinton. The institute also includes James W. Ziglar, who was commissioner of the agency under President George W. Bush. The report, which is based on analyses of government statistics, does not make policy recommendations.
Mr. Obama has deported about two million foreigners, a record for an American president. But official figures for 2013 showed a major shift toward border enforcement: Nearly two-thirds of about 368,000 deportations that year by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the primary enforcement agency, were of immigrants caught by border agents as they were trying to enter illegally.
Under the Secure Communities program, which the Bush administration started in 2008, fingerprints of anyone arrested by the local or state police are checked against immigration databases. Immigration agents decide whether to detain foreigners flagged in the checks. Mr. Obama expanded enforcement to cover the entire nation, and a large share of deportations from within the country now start with checks under the program.
According to the institute’s report, an average of 75 percent of people deported through Secure Communities from 2009 to 2011 had a criminal record. By 2013, 88 percent of immigrants deported under the program had a criminal record.
Of a total of 530,019 foreigners flagged in 2013, including many who were in the country illegally, 85 percent were not deported, generally because they did not have a criminal record, the report found.
The system has been harder on migrants who try to cross the border illegally or come back after they left or were deported. Before the Obama administration, most of those migrants, usually Mexicans, were expelled without formal charges. By 2012, the report found, 76 percent of deportations of migrants caught crossing illegally were based on formal charges for immigration or criminal violations.
At the same time, far fewer immigrants, particularly at the border, have opportunities to challenge their deportations. In 2012, 75 percent of deportations were through fast-track proceedings, without any screening by immigration officers or hearings by judges.
Deportations from the Southwest border have been part of an aggressive security strategy the administration has firmly defended, which has contributed to a steep decline in illegal crossings. But the Homeland Security secretary, Mr. Johnson, under pressure from immigrant advocates, is reviewing interior enforcement policies.
Ms. Meissner said the report showed that changes in priorities could significantly influence how agents conduct deportations in the country. But it suggests that policy tweaks would not greatly reduce those deportations, since the numbers have already declined.
Even lower numbers of those deportations may not abate the outcry from advocates, because they affect “unauthorized immigrants who are settled into established communities” and create “a broad atmosphere of fear and vulnerability,” the report says.
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