The federal government’s chief deportation agency has seen its success plummet under President Obama, and its chief, Sarah R. Saldana, will tell Congress on Tuesday that they’ve had trouble adapting to the changing face of illegal immigration and a lack of cooperation from both American cities and from foreign countries.
Ms. Saldana, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), says in testimony prepared for the House Judiciary Committee that the dramatic drop in deportations is a reflection of a trickier set of circumstances and pressures from all sides.
She said she had to pull agents off their regular duties during last summer’s illegal immigrant surge at the border, which meant fewer people focusing on deporting the longtime illegal immigrants living in the interior of the U.S. And she said the lack of cooperation from states, counties and cities when agents ask them to hold an illegal immigrant for pickup has also hindered efforts.
“While the reasons for this may vary, including state and local legislative restrictions and judicial findings of state and local liability, in certain circumstances we believe such a lack of cooperation may increase the risk that dangerous criminals are returned to the streets, putting the public and our officers at greater risk,” she will testify.
Ms. Saldana is likely to face a severe grilling over the troubles at her agency, as she defends Mr. Obama’s immigration policies, which have neutered much of ICE’s work.
Republicans said it amounts to a “failure” on the agency’s top priority.
“Over the past six years, President Obama has steadily dismantled the interior enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte. “Under the Obama administration’s watch, the apprehension, detention, and removal of unlawful and criminal aliens has dramatically declined. Altogether, the actions taken by this administration undermine the rule of law, make our communities less safe, and place ICE officers in harm’s way.”
Ms. Saldana botched her last appearance before Congress, in March, when she told a congressional committee she would welcome a new law cracking down on so-called “sanctuary cities” who refuse to cooperate.
“Thank you, Amen,” she told the House Appropriations Committee, when a lawmaker asked her if she would like to see such a law.
A day later, however, after a furious outcry from immigrant-rights groups, she backed off, issuing a statement saying such a law would “be a highly counterproductive step.”
Some localities say that holding illegal immigrants for pickup by federal authorities after they’ve completed their sentences or processing for their local crimes is unconstitutional.
In her testimony for Tuesday, Ms. Saldana said her agency is going to carry out a new program that doesn’t ask localities to hold illegal immigrants any longer than they already do, but would ask the localities to alert federal authorities about impending releases so agents can be on hand to pick illegal immigrants up immediately.
Ms. Saldana, who took over as director in December, described an agency hit hard by last summer’s illegal immigrant surge. She said shifting agents to deal with the increase in new illegal immigrants from Central America meant less focus on long-time illegal immigrants in the interior, and on trying to disrupt Mexican smuggling operations.
One key cut was to the Alien Transfer Exit Program (ATEP), which takes Mexicans captured at one point on the border and ships them to another place to be deported. The theory is that if they were released where they were caught, they would turn around and, with the help of the same smugglers, immediately attempt to come back in.
She said limiting the ATEP put a dent in ICE’s overall deportations, which have dropped to their lowest level since the Bush administration, and are down about 25 percent from their peak in 2012.
Deporting illegal immigrants from Central America takes longer than deporting those from Mexico, and tasks such as arranging travel documents and flights mean the cost is higher.
Away from immigration, ICE did notch successes in customs investigations, going after several cartels involved in black market peso exchanges and targeting human smuggling operations. Operation Coyote, designed to combat the smugglers who helped spark last summer’s immigration surge, has resulted in nearly 1,300 criminal arrests, Ms. Saldana will testify.