The Obama administration has created a tool to push local authorities to hold illegal immigrants for eventual deportation even when they don’t match the top priorities the president laid out last year, in a move both sides of the immigration debate say is proof that his deportation amnesty is falling short.
Dubbed the I-247X, the detainer request form gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents the power to ask local police to hold illegal immigrants for pickup even if they don’t have serious criminal records or ties to terrorism.
The form, which puts discretion back into the hands of rank-and-file agents, covers those caught trying to jump the border, anyone who arrived illegally after Jan. 1, 2014, those who have overstayed their visas or the terms of the Visa Waiver Program, and those who are ignoring recent deportation orders from courts.
Security analysts praised the move, but it drew a fierce outcry from immigrant rights advocates, who said Homeland Security officials were retreating from promises they made last year to stop targeting most illegal immigrants.
Tens of thousands of additional immigrants could have been targets for deportation last year if the expanded rules had been in place, said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for a crackdown.
She calculated that ICE agents encountered nearly 90,000 aliens they deemed deportable, but whom they didn’t put into removal proceedings because of the old priorities.
“There are people who obviously are good cases for removal who do not fall within the very strict priorities,” Ms. Vaughan said. “ICE needed a mechanism to deal with these cases or there were going to be more scandalous releases, as we saw the last six months — criminal aliens who should have been deported got released.”
Deportation has become the most controversial part of the immigration debate.
Mr. Obama took office promising a get-tough approach and set a record with nearly 410,000 deportations in 2012, prompting Hispanic rights advocates, who had been part of his political base, to accuse him of becoming “deporter in chief.”
Stung by the criticism, Mr. Obama first developed a program to grant tentative legal status — known as deferred action — to young adult illegal immigrants, called Dreamers. Last year, he followed up with a plan to expand deferred action to as many as 4 million more illegal immigrants.
He also announced the new priorities for deportation agents. Some estimates said that meant only about 2 million of the estimated 11.5 million illegal immigrants in the country were in danger of being deported.
Yielding to pushback from so-called sanctuary cities, Mr. Obama also announced in November 2014 that he would no longer ask state and local police to turn over any illegal immigrants who weren’t serious public safety threats with felonies or major misdemeanors on their records. That initiative was dubbed the Priority Enforcement Program.
The new I-247X form expands that guidance. Homeland Security officials said they saw it as an enhancement.
“The Form I-247X is an essential tool that establishes a uniform process for ICE to arrange the safe and orderly transfer of non-PEP priority aliens from a cooperating state or local law enforcement agency,” ICE Director Sarah R. Saldana said in a letter to employees last month explaining the changes.
She said the form “will help strengthen” cooperation with local law enforcement agencies.
Indeed, some police chiefs and sheriffs complained that there were some bad actors they were trying to report to federal agents, but whom ICE couldn’t do anything about because the immigrants fell outside the priorities.
The new detainer form takes care of that.
It would not override sanctuary cities, however. Local police would still need to be willing to cooperate, and jurisdictions with sanctuary policies still could refuse to honor detainer requests.
Training materials say the form is likely to be used chiefly in the cases of recent border crossers and those who overstay their visas.
Immigrant rights advocates said that is a major step back for Mr. Obama.
“That’s definitely very broad and a serious cause for concern,” said Eunice Cho, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s immigrant justice project. “If the I-247X form would cover recent border crossers, overstays and individuals who haven’t been convicted of a crime, this would indicate that ICE is simply flouting its prior guidance. These individuals clearly fall outside of the priority areas for the Priority Enforcement Program.”
She said a detainer request that allows ICE to go beyond the most serious criminals “undermines any trust” in the deportation agency to follow its own guidelines.
Other advocates wondered how the administration could justify a program that explicitly targets non-priorities.
“This demonstrates that DHS does not have its house in order,” said Marisa Franco, director of #Not1More, a campaign whose goal is to halt deportations. “ICE is still moving in the opposite direction of humane policy and trying to take local law enforcement with it. It is not just an issue of individual agents but the individual director, Sarah Saldana.”
ICE, however, says it never intended to surrender the ability to pursue other illegal immigrants.
“The Form I-247X is a flexible tool for obtaining transfers of certain non-PEP priority individuals while respecting local concerns to preserve community trust,” an agency official said. “In directing that PEP be established, the secretary made clear that PEP would not prevent ICE from seeking the transfer of an individual from state or local custody when ICE has otherwise determined that the individual is an immigration enforcement priority and the state or locality agrees to cooperate with such transfer.”
The official stressed that the new form does not direct local law enforcement to arrest illegal immigrants, nor is in intended to interfere with community laws on bail, parole or release.
The Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is monitoring the use of the form, and all ICE agents and officers are undergoing online training. The training began last month and must be completed by Dec. 11, Ms. Saldana said in her letter to employees.