Immigration agents tried to deport only about a fourth of the cases they encountered in 2013, said a report being released Monday from the Center for Immigration Studies that shows just how much President Obama’s policies have cut down on potential enforcement.
Jessica Vaughan, the report’s author, called it a form of “catch and release.” She said agents at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement received more than 720,000 hits on immigrants who could be eligible for deportation but filed charges against fewer than 195,000 of them.
Of those let go, 68,000 had criminal convictions on their records. All told, more than 870,000 immigrants have been ordered removed from the U.S. but are defying the government and refusing to leave.
“These numbers confirm that interior enforcement has been anything but tough — that in fact, ICE is releasing more illegal aliens and more criminal aliens than they’re trying to remove,” said Ms. Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates a crackdown on immigration.
The American Immigration Council, though, said the numbers were “completely misleading” and that many of those ICE agents encountered were likely kicked out of the country even if they weren’t officially put into deportation proceedings.
The AIC said the more than 720,000 immigrants ICE encountered also likely included many legal immigrants whose “interaction with law enforcement was so minor that they are not even legally subject to removal.”
“CIS is essentially asserting that a legal-permanent resident or a recently naturalized citizen with a broken tail light should be charged by ICE and removed from the country although there is no basis in law for such action,” said Benjamin Johnson, AIC’s executive director.
The debate over deportations comes as President Obama is under pressure to cut deportations even more.
In meetings with immigrant rights activists this month, Mr. Obama promised to devise more “humane” policies that would carve even more illegal immigrants out of deportation rules.
Democrats, looking to shift the pressure, announced a petition drive last week to try to force House Republicans to bring a broad bill legalizing most illegal immigrants to the chamber floor for a vote.
“The only opposition seems to be among House Republicans,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.
Still, immigrant rights groups are targeting Democrats. One group has announced plans to demonstrate outside of Democratic Party offices across the country to demand that Mr. Obama halt deportations on a broader scale.
Two years ago, the president announced a policy granting tentative legal status to more than 500,000 young adult illegal immigrants. The Homeland Security Department also has issued several policy memos pushing most other illegal immigrants down the list of deportation priorities.
All of that has led to an overall drop in deportations by about 10 percent in 2013 to just under 370,000. Deportations are on pace for another 10 percent drop this year, to about 325,000.
Homeland Security officials say they are budgeted to deport about 400,000 immigrants a year.
Immigrant rights activists call that the deportation quota and say Mr. Obama has had to go beyond serious criminals and rank-and-file immigrants to boost his numbers.
However, Ms. Vaughan’s study suggests that ICE doesn’t even go after all of the criminals it encounters. In 2013, ICE agents reported coming across 193,000 immigrants with criminal records — more serious than traffic offenses — yet they tried to deport only 125,000.
She said that in Arizona, ICE agents are even releasing illegal immigrants convicted of identity theft.
“The preponderance of the evidence demonstrates that immigration enforcement in America has collapsed,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who has fought legalization efforts in Congress. “Even those with criminal convictions are being released. DHS is a department in crisis.”
An illegal immigrant’s chances of facing arrest and deportation proceedings often seem to depend on where they are caught.
Agents in the Los Angeles office released 81 percent of the immigrants they encountered. Down the road in San Diego, agents released only 5 percent, according to the report.
Ms. Vaughan said the ICE encounters weren’t random. In each case, there had been either a database hit or a specific lead that showed the immigrant may qualify for deportation — though in many cases, the investigation may have found they were not eligible for removal.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden may have tipped the administration’s hand on expanding the categories of those exempt from deportation. Speaking to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last week, he praised illegal immigrants as exemplary.
“I believe they’re already American citizens,” Mr. Biden said.
Some activists argue that breaking immigration laws and ignoring previous deportations shouldn’t be enough to get kicked out. They received backing last week when John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE, penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times arguing that those folks aren’t public safety threats and should be allowed to stay.
“To be sure, those who repeatedly cross our borders illegally or abscond from the immigration court bear culpability. However, making this population a priority detracts from ICE’s ability to track down and arrest the increasing number of much more serious public safety threats the agency identifies,” he wrote.