News Analysis: ICE Chief Promises Efficiency, Continued Tough Enforcement of Immigration Laws

On his first visit to Los Angeles, three months after becoming the chief of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), assistant secretary for Homeland Security John Morton said all his agency wants to do is become more efficient.

“We will try to apply immigration laws in a tough, smart and thoughtful manner,” said Morton to a small group of reporters invited to meet him last week as part of his tour of Southern California.

He said that if people expected ICE to stop doing its job, they would be disappointed. “That is not the point”, said Morton, who is a career prosecutor.

Some changes have been announced by the Obama administration: a change of emphasis from worker raids to desk raids, where the employer’s documentation is audited and employees lose their jobs but aren’t deported, is a major difference.

But some of the announced changes will, in fact, put more pressure on immigrants. The administration announced a larger investment in a program started under the Bush Administration called Secure Communities, that offers resources to allow jails to check the fingerprints of those arrested and scan them for any immigration holds, pending deportation orders or lack of documentation that would make them deportable.

The Obama administration wants to make the program widespread and aims to have it in every jail, including local ones, by 2011.

Morton said that making it “more even” would reduce the accusations of racial profiling.

“We will use technology to check every person that gets arrested against immigration records,” said Morton. “If I was arrested, it would happen to me, that way nobody can say we are focusing on immigrants or certain races”.

That change is not likely to make activists happy because it could transform Secure Communities from a program that aims to deport criminal aliens into a massive deportation tool applied to anyone arrested on any charge, regardless of their guilt or innocence.

Recent studies have shown that this is already happening: according to Human Rights Watch, only 13% of the undocumented immigrants caught by the program were criminals.

Morton also said that he got rid of the arrest quotas formerly set for agents in the field. “That is not the right way to apply the law,” he said.

On another topic, the new leader of ICE said that his office is evaluating immigrant detention facilities to determine their adequacy to hold different kinds of people. For example, ICE recently announced that families would no longer be held at the much-criticized T. Don Hutto facility in Texas.

“We detain all kinds of people,” Morton said. “We have more than 350 contracts with public and private jails to hold our detainees, and we might have to revise some, or build new, more adequate facilities.”

This will be good news for the Corrections Corporation of America, the private company that manages many of the private detention centers for ICE.

Morton said he was bothered by the fact that another ICE program, 287 (g), which trains local police to act as immigration agents, is misinterpreted as a tool for racial profiling. “Most people who request this training are bothered by a gang problem in their neighborhood caused by people who are illegally in the country,” he said.

When it was pointed out to him that one reason 287 (g) has a bad name was its use by Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is under investigation by the Justice Department for potential civil rights abuses, he refused to condemn the sheriff.

“He is being investigated, and he also has a chance to review the new contracts and decide if he wants to stay in the program, like all the others,” Morton said, referring to a recent decision by the Obama administration to review existing 287 (g) agreements.

“We don’t force this on anybody, it’s voluntary,” Morton said. “Also, people have to understand this is a statutory program. We didn’t create it. It’s in the law.”