Saying the Obama administration is ignoring a direct order from Congress, a congresswoman has introduced legislation that would — once again — eliminate the Obama administration’s official immigration-rights advocacy office.
Rep. Diane Black, Tennessee Republican, thought she’d nixed the office last year when Congress passed a spending bill defunding the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Public Advocate.
But the Obama administration renamed the office, keeping the same director and personnel under a new title of Community Outreach.
“It is an outrage that federal bureaucrats think they can simply skirt the law, in essence ignoring the will of the people, by playing a shell game and hiding ICE employees and activities with a mere title change,” Mrs. Black said in a statement announcing her bill.
The office was created with fanfare in 2012, at a time when President Obama was seeking re-election, looking to shore up support among Hispanics, and trying to respond to concerns he’d been overzealous in his detention and deportation of illegal immigrants.
In a blog cross-posted on both the Homeland Security and White House web pages, Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, the new director, said he would be a voice for “the stakeholder community.” Immigrant-rights advocates hoped he would provide another avenue for them to argue for the release of immigrants the administration was trying to deport.
But Congress was less than pleased. In a spending bill last year, lawmakers voted to strip out money for the position — the congressional equivalent of a veto over the executive branch.
ICE countered by shifting the position to Community Outreach.
The office didn’t respond to an emailed request for comment, but an ICE official, who requested anonymity, offered some details of the workload, saying that since ICE established its helpline in September 2012 it has resolved more than 43,000 calls, and in 2013 it responded to more than 2,100 email inquiries.
“All major law enforcement agencies recognize the importance of community engagement and ICE is no different,” the official said. “Community engagement promotes public safety by bringing law enforcement, concerned citizens, NGOs, the business community and others together to engage in dialogue, express concerns, and find ways to mutually support each other and resolve conflict.”
The official did not say why ICE rearranged the office rather than shutting it down after Congress’s actions.
Some immigrant-rights groups and members of Congress have reported good experiences with the advocacy office, but others have had mixed reactions.
“It’s a joke. The whole thing’s a joke,” said Ralph Isenberg, who runs the Isenberg Center for Immigration Empowerment in Dallas, which works to bring tough cases to the attention of officials and just last month won the release of two women the government had designated for deportation.
He has regularly butted heads with the public advocate, and said he is working on a lawsuit against the agency for trying to prevent him from filing forms on behalf of some immigrants.
“The public advocate’s office has put a special set of procedures in place just for my organization that basically makes it impossible for me to communicate cases that we come across in Dallas,” Mr. Isenberg said.
Christina Fialho, co-executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), said ICE officials and their detention policies are in need of accountability and oversight.
Her organization has worked with ICE as part of a project to make it easier for family and friends to visit immigrants who are being detained while in deportation proceedings.
After three of her visitation programs were canceled, she tried to find out what happened. She was told the decision came from national headquarters, so she called the public advocate’s office, which confirmed that the programs were canceled after she wrote a blog post critical of ICE’s policies.
“While I’m certainly critical of ICE’s office of the public advocate, it’s really the only office that provides advocates on both sides of the debate a window into this massive agency, and therefore some accountability,” she said.