Senate Republicans have long criticized the Obama administration as lax on immigration enforcement, and their argument was bolstered by news this week that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is dismissing a record-high number of cases against immigrant detainees in Houston. In response, seven pro-enforcement Republican senators sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano today demanding more information on whom ICE dismisses from deportation proceedings and how much money her agency would need to ensure deportation of all illegal immigrants it encounters. (The controversy has been played out before: Republicans made the same arguments in August when news first broke of ICE halting deportations in Houston.)
The letter claims ICE releases illegal immigrants who have been arrested for sex crimes, domestic violence and driving under the influence. ICE, though, argues it must to something to address the growing backlogs in immigration courts and that it only releases non-criminal and low-level offenders — not including misdemeanor convictions involving DWI, sex crimes or domestic violence — and those with pending applications for legal status. Napolitano and ICE Chief John Morton have claimed the agency focuses on the “worst of the worst” so it can best use its limited resources.
In response, Republicans said the agency should request more money. “[W]e have not seen any efforts by ICE, your Department, or the Administration to request an increase in ICE funding sufficient to address staffing shortages, detention capacity, and coordination of enforcement efforts nationwide to achieve a streamlined and robust immigration removal system,” the senators wrote in the letter. “As a result, it appears that your Department is doing the very thing that we have raised concerns about in several letters – allowing illegal aliens to evade the law.”
The entire controversy points to the difficult balance the Obama administration must try to reach on immigration enforcement. On one side, the administration favors comprehensive immigration reform that would allow many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country to stay here and become legal residents. This would seemingly point to an immigration enforcement policy that would deport fewer people, particularly among the non-criminal illegal immigrant population. But perhaps due to heavy pressure to seem tough on immigration, the Obama administration increased enforcement to record levels, deporting more non-citizens than Republican predecessors.
The idea, according to some immigrant rights advocates, was for the Obama administration to prove its commitment to immigration enforcement and border security so it could later broker a deal on comprehensive immigration reform with the right. By the looks of the senators’ letter, the GOP is not convinced.
Here’s the full letter:
Dear Secretary Napolitano:
Recently, media reports have revealed that pending removal proceedings are being dismissed in record numbers. That sharp increase in dismissals is the result of a directive from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Director John T. Morton to all ICE attorneys to review pending cases and seek dismissal if the cases do not involve Level I offenders (aliens convicted of aggravated felonies or two or more felonies). Specifically, ICE attorneys are directed to seek dismissal of cases involving Level II and Level III criminal aliens so long as the aliens have no felony convictions and no more than two misdemeanors. As we understand it, cases involving aliens with misdemeanors involving domestic violence, sexual crimes, or driving while intoxicated would not be dropped.
Though the reports focused only on cases pending before Houston immigration judges, our understanding is that the ICE directive applies nationwide. Numerous criminal aliens are being released into society and are having proceedings terminated simply because ICE has decided that such cases do not fit within the Department’s chosen enforcement priorities.
The ICE directive, along with other recently announced detention and removal policies, raises serious questions about your Department’s commitment to enforce the immigration laws. It appears that your Department is enforcing the law based on criteria it arbitrarily chose, with complete disregard for the enforcement laws created by Congress. The repercussions of this decision extend beyond removal proceedings, because it discourages officers from even new removal proceedings if they believe the case ultimately will be dismissed based on the new directive.
Even more disturbing is the fact that your Department has chosen to dismiss cases against criminal aliens, including aliens who have committed crimes involving moral turpitude, crimes of violence, assault, theft, fraud, drug offenses, driving under the influence, and illegal entry.
To be sure, ICE has cited a lack of resources as one of the reasons for its prioritization of cases and for its selective enforcement. But to date, we have not seen any efforts by ICE, your Department, or the Administration to request an increase in ICE funding sufficient to address staffing shortages, detention capacity, and coordination of enforcement efforts nationwide to achieve a streamlined and robust immigration removal system. As a result, it appears that your Department is doing the very thing that we have raised concerns about in several letters – allowing illegal aliens to evade the law while waiting, without much concern about removal, to one day obtain legal status. Though Congress has been slow to reach a comprehensive immigration solution, your Department is charged with enforcing the law as written and it should not be adopting a lax approach to immigration enforcement or selectively enforcing the laws against only those aliens it considers a priority.
We would like a detailed list of the number of cases that have been dismissed since January 2010 to the present. If the case involved a criminal alien, we also would like you to identify which crimes the aliens were convicted of and in which jurisdiction. In addition, we want you to detail exactly how much funding your Department would require to ensure that enforcement of the law occurs consistently for every illegal alien encountered and apprehended by ICE or U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Please respond by November 15th.
John Cornyn, United States Senator
Jeff Sessions, United States Senator
Jon Kyl, United States Senator
Orrin Hatch, United States Senator
Chuck Grassley, United States Senator
Lindsey Graham, United States Senator
Tom Coburn, M.D., United States Senator