NEW YORK - Immigrants' rights advocates are up in arms Thursday over an apparent gaffe by a senior government official suggesting that immigration authorities would use a "quota system" to determine the number of people it would deport - followed by a "clarification" from higher-ups that appeared to confirm the quota approach.
The reference to the quota approach was contained in a memorandum written by James M. Chaparro, the director of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO), part of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency within the Department of Homeland Security. It directed DRO officers nationwide to boost deportation numbers, make maximum use of detention and detain more people.
The American Civil Liberties Union and a number of immigration groups met earlier this week with ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton and his senior staff to discuss the reported quota policy and DRO priorities.
At the meeting, Morton reportedly denied the use of quotas, stated his commitment to work together in a "spirit of candor and transparency" and asked to be "judged on the record, not on rumors."
But when asked how ICE arrived at its goal of deporting at least 400,000 people this fiscal year, Morton reportedly said ICE had deported 387,000 individuals last fiscal year and needed to increase this number because Congress had given the agency increased resources.
And, in recent testimony before Congress, Morton said ICE intends to reduce the average length of stay of detainees in custody to allow ICE to remove a higher number of undocumented migrants.
"Recently, we have taken steps to reduce the average length of stay from 33.5 days as of January 2010 to 28 days by FY 2011. This efficiency is increasingly important as the Secure Communities program leads to the identification of more criminal aliens," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement, "These enforcement priorities are in direct contradiction with those set forth by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton who have both repeatedly testified, for much of the past year, that ICE's priority is the deportation of dangerous criminal offenders."
The group called on leaders in Congress and in ICE to establish transparent immigration enforcement and detention policies that respect the rule of law and constitutional values.
Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, an arm of the American Immigration Council, told IPS, "The idea of deportation by quota is disappointing. It is sad to see ICE falling into the trap of measuring success by the numbers of people detained and removed."
That sentiment was echoed by Judy Rabinovitz, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. She said, "ICE should not be arresting people just to fill detention beds."
Giovagnoli added, "DHS is operating on borrowed time. It is amassing a history of failed enforcement initiatives."
"This is unsound government policy and an imprudent use of American taxpayers' money that can very easily lead to civil liberties abuses," said Joanne Lin, ACLU legislative counsel, who attended the DHS meeting.
"Immigration enforcement practices should be tied to the needs and demands of America, not driven by arbitrary numerical goals set by ICE. The preoccupation with reaching the number 400,000 has placed intense pressure on all corners of ICE to step up immigration enforcement operations," she said.
"The ACLU is very concerned that ICE agents, in the name of meeting specific numerical goals, will feel pressured to cut corners and improperly target people who look 'foreign' for stops and interrogations."
Another immigrants' advocate, Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum and chair of the Reform Immigration for America campaign, said, "ICE has a serious credibility problem as they continue to say one thing while doing another."
"ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton cannot effectively lead an agency when he doesn't know what his field representatives are doing or when his subordinates are delivering messages directly at odds with the purported goals of the organization and the president," he said.
The Chaparro memo, he said, "is only the latest in a series of agency mishaps that have undermined the administration's credibility on immigration enforcement policy."
And in Washington, a coalition of immigrant rights groups has demanded the ouster of the nation's top immigration official, charging that underlings at Immigration and Customs Enforcement were thwarting Obama administration policy by setting a quota on deportations.
"The reality is that ICE has gone rogue and needs to be reined in with dramatic action," said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Community Change. "The agency charged with enforcing the nation's immigration laws is systematically deceiving the president and the American public."