WASHINGTON - In an aggressive effort to boost deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun to increase by nearly 25 percent the number of agents tasked with finding and deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records, pulling 150 officers from desks and backroom jobs to add extra fugitive search teams around the country.
The plan was launched when the number of deportations slumped after several years of growth, partly due to the drop in illegal immigration along the Southwest border. But critics, including some inside ICE, denounced the effort as politically inspired to help President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.
The move, which began without public notice May 14, calls for increasing the number of fugitive operations teams to 129 from 104. Each team has been given a goal of arresting 50 suspects per month, according to documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau, although ICE officials insisted Friday that no quotas were set for the teams.
An early draft of the plan says ICE is "experiencing a shortfall in criminal removals for the fiscal year," and called for using 300 Border Patrol agents, dressed in ICE uniforms, to close the gap. The plan was scaled back to 150 ICE officers after objections were raised by union organizers for the Border Patrol.
The fugitive teams were instructed for the first time this month to focus chiefly on finding and deporting illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors, multiple immigration violations, or having used fraudulent documents, and not on broader categories of illegal immigrants.
ICE officials are also reviewing pending deportation proceedings to look for those who do not fall into those categories and pose no security risks. So far, about 10 percent of the cases reviewed have been placed under an administrative hold.
The stepped-up effort may prove politically sensitive in an election year with both parties scrambling for voters in states where immigration issues are important, including Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.
Obama, who has drawn strong support from Latino voters, is under pressure from Latino activists to find more humane ways to enforce federal immigration laws and protect families with deep roots in America. Focusing on criminal immigrants tends to avoid that issue.
Republican leaders, including likely GOP nominee Mitt Romney, have demanded greater efforts to identify and deport anyone who is in the U.S. illegally, including those who have lived and worked here for years, not just those found guilty of committing crimes.
ICE Director John Morton defended the program Friday as "the best way to use our limited resources" against those who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
"We changed agency policy to focus fugitive operations more on criminal offenders," Morton said in a telephone interview. "This is part of a permanent restructuring of agency resources to meet the highest priority of removing serious offenders. ... We think that is the right call because at the end of the day public safety is our goal."
In a memo last year, Morton wrote that ICE prosecutors could use their discretion as to whether or not to seek deportation of people with strong family ties in the U.S., including college students and members of the military.
After Morton gave the memo to a congressional committee, Republicans criticized the Obama administration for trying to use back channels to enact the DREAM Act. In 2010, Congress narrowly defeated the measure, which would have created a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors.
Some ICE agents condemned the latest plan as politically inspired, rather than a more efficient use of resources.