Immigration Politics?: ICE Head Julie Myers Resigns Day After Election

Less than twelve hours after the results of this weeks’ election were announced, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Wednesday that Julie Myers, assistant secretary of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is leaving the agency by November 15.

Myers, who has led the agency since 2006, was the controversial face of the Bush administration’s enforcement-focused immigration policy. As Feet In 2 Worlds has reported,  recent large-scale ICE raids have been deeply unpopular, particularly among Latino voters and voters from other immigrant groups, and served to further tarnish the Republican brand. Post election analysis shows that Latinos gave Obama the winning edge in six states, helping to propel him into the White House and adding to Democratic majorities in Congress.

During Myers’ tenure, the agency doubled the number of undocumented immigrants swept up into deportation proceedings to reach a new record of 274,000 sent back to their home countries in 2006. The agency also saw its budget grow exponentially — and used it mostly for enforcement tactics including large-scale immigration raids that largely targeted undocumented workers rather than their employers.

Myers leaves amid speculation that she was the source of the leak to The Associated Press about the status of Obama’s undocumented Kenyan aunt only a few days before the general election. According to Rolling Stone’s Tim Wilkinson, Myers’ precipitous departure the day after the election and less than a week after the information on Obama’s aunt was leaked is likely no coincidence.

Earlier this week, Feet in 2 Worlds reported on how the immigration story of Obama’s family –including his aunt, who continues to live in Boston after her asylum claim was denied last year– reflects the situation of many mixed-status families in the U.S. The news was notable for its timing –the story broke the Friday before the election–as well as for the privileged information it disclosed.

Details of asylum cases are confidential, often to protect the safety of asylees. The release of information on the case of Zeituni Onyango found immigrant rights advocates as well as the pro-immigrant blogosphere crying foul. Obama released a statement saying he didn’t know about his aunt’s immigration status, and reiterated that “laws must be followed.” ICE is reportedly conducting an internal investigation into the leak.

Numerous questions were raised during Myers’ Senate confirmation process about her qualifications to lead ICE, the lead immigration enforcement agency. Progressives and conservatives alike raised concerns about Myers’ lack of experience in immigration enforcement. In fact, her confirmation process was so stalled by these questions that President Bush made her one of his recess appointments, which don’t require Senate approval. (Senators finally confirmed her last December.)

Myers has been no stranger to controversy while at ICE. The agency, which is responsible for enforcing immigration laws and for administering the country’s immigration detention system, deported a record 274,000 undocumented immigrants last year.

ICE was also responsible for the short-lived and much-maligned ‘Operation Scheduled Departure’, which hoped to encourage undocumented immigrants to voluntarily deport themselves to their home countries in return for ICE footing the bill for their travel and moving costs and not forcing them into detention centers or deportation proceedings. A total of eight undocumented immigrants volunteered to return to their home countries through the pilot program, which was quietly retired after two monts. 

Myers was also criticized for presiding over an ICE employee Halloween costume contest last year where she awarded the ‘most original’ prize to a white employee dressed in a jailhouse costume while sporting a wig resembling dreadlocks and wearing makeup to simulate blackface. After widespread media coverage, Myers publicly apologized. She was subsequently appointed Assistant Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and head of ICE by President Bush while Congress was in recess.