Lack of resources curtails ICE tracking of illegals

Agents told to ‘prioritize’

**FILE** People wait for nightfall on Mexico's side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. (Associated Press)**FILE** People wait for nightfall on Mexico’s side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. (Associated Press)

New guidance telling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to focus on apprehending terrorists and criminals has many of ICE’s rank-and-file agents wondering who then is responsible for tracking down and detaining the millions of other illegal border-crossers and fugitive aliens now in the country.

The new guidelines are outlined in a June 29 memo from Assistant Secretary John Morton, who heads the agency, to all ICE employees regarding the apprehension, detention and removal of illegal immigrants, noting that the agency “only has resources to remove approximately 400,000 aliens per year, less than 4 percent of the estimated illegal-alien population in the United States.”

Mr. Morton said ICE needed to focus wisely on the limited resources Congress had provided the agency and would “prioritize the apprehension and removal of aliens who only pose a threat to national security and/or public safety, such as criminals and terrorists.”

“With this prioritization, we will ensure that our work has the greatest possible impact and most effectively advances our mission,” Mr. Morton said, adding that the new guidelines were necessary “in light of the large number of administrative violations the agency is charged with addressing and the limited enforcement resources the agency has available.”

Under the directive, ICE officials are authorized under a three-level priority system to use enforcement personnel, detention space and removal resources if they are assured that any deportations that do occur “promote ICE’s highest enforcement priorities; namely, national security, public safety and border security.”

Listed as the agency’s top priority, according to the memo, are illegal immigrants who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety; those convicted of violent crimes, both felons and repeat offenders; those older than 16 who participated in organized criminal gangs; and those with outstanding criminal warrants.

Described in the memo as lesser priorities are foreign nationals caught crossing the border illegally or using phony immigration documents to gain entry, and those identified as fugitives after failing to show up for immigration or deportation hearings.

The agency’s fiscal 2010 budget for detention and removal operations is $2.55 billion.

More than a dozen veteran ICE agents told The Washington Times in the past week that the carefully worded memo had field agents wondering whether they would be detaining illegal border-crossers in the future and whether those apprehended by other law enforcement agencies would be turned over to ICE for eventual deportation.

One high-ranking ICE official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the memo publicly, said agents at a major field office who inquired were told, “Arresting and deporting aliens was administrative work, and that as ICE criminal investigators, they were not going to do administrative duties.”

According to the official, the agents were told that ICE criminal investigators would be involved only in high-profile drug and terrorism cases that involved the seizure of assets, and no longer would process illegal immigrants otherwise detained.

A March memo to field agents from Richard S. Curry, acting special agent in charge of the Las Vegas field office, seems to corroborate the official’s account. It said, “We are criminal investigators and responsible for conducting complex, ICE-led criminal investigations that result in criminal arrests, indictments, convictions; as well as the seizure and subsequent forfeiture of assets.

“Midyear reviews are just around the corner and attached are the enforcement statistics by agents from Oct. 1, 2009, through March 3, 2010,” the memo said. “While statistics alone are not the sole means utilized during year evaluations, they are an integral part of the process.”

Rep. Ted Poe, Texas Republican, a member of the House Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees who has steadfastly supported efforts at increasing the funding and manpower for enhanced security efforts at the nation’s borders, said the Morton memo sends an “unfortunate message” to would-be illegal border-crossers.

“The message to those not yet in the United States is that they will get a free pass once they gain entry,” he said.

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