By Griselda Nevárez
A 33% drop in deportation proceedings initiated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the first three months of this fiscal year reflect recent Obama Administration efforts to prioritize those with criminal records, according to a report by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
From October through December, ICE filed 39,331 deportation cases to immigration courts across the country — down from the 58,639 filings recorded a year ago. Filings are usually low this time of year but the 33% falloff is unheard of, said TRAC co-director Susan Long.
“You usually see a small drop — maybe 10% — but 33% is huge,” Long, an associate professor of managerial statistics, told Hispanic Link News Service.
The decrease, she said, may have been caused by steps ICE has been taking to implement the use of prosecutorial discretion outlined by agency director John Morton in a June 17 memorandum.
The memo called on ICE attorneys and staff to refrain from pursuing the deportation of noncitizens who were brought to the United States as children and have committed no law violations. Special consideration is given to those attending college, who have or are serving in the U.S. military, with strong ties and contributions to the community or other extenuating factors.
The Obama administration’s Aug. 18 announcement to review 300,000 pending deportation cases may have also played a role, Long said.
Morton told Hispanic Link the TRAC numbers “are not a fully accurate representation of who we remove” and don’t take into consideration the people removed outside of the formal immigration court process. A large number leave through voluntary, administrative, expedited and stipulated removals or reinstatement of old orders.
Long said she recognizes the report’s findings are based on data obtained from the Executive Office for Immigration Review and take into account only those cases ICE files through immigration courts. The problem, she says, is that since 2010 ICE has ignored requests by TRAC under the Freedom of Information Act to analyze data on every deportation case the agency has filed, the charges filed against individuals, and all criminal records of those detained.
“We want to present a full picture, but we can’t because ICE is withholding the data,” Long said.
She also said there is little evidence to show ICE is meeting its goal of targeting serious criminals.
Only 14%, down from 17.3% two years ago, were facing deportation in immigration courts on grounds of alleged criminal activity or accusations of being “aggravated felons.”
Another problem, Long said, is what ICE defines as the “most serious” convictions. Along with traffic offenses, disorderly conduct, possession of liquor, and illegal entry, failing to buckle a seat belt was considered among those.
“Who would’ve thought that something like that might be a serious criminal offense?” Long said.
ICE spokesperson Gillian Christensen said it is “erroneous for TRAC to equate the number of cases coded as ‘criminal’ before immigration judges with the ultimate number of criminal removals.” She said ICE is not required to file charging documents in immigration court asserting criminal grounds of removal when deporting those who have been convicted of a crime and are in the country illegally.
Christensen pointed out that ICE has been removing a record number of convicted criminals. In fiscal year 2011, the agency removed 216,000, an increase of almost 100% over the 114,415 removed three years ago. This year, 52% of individuals who have been removed thus far are convicted criminals.
The removal of criminal aliens is and will remain ICE’s highest priority, Christensen said.