Even as they were pleading poverty in the federal courts, immigration officials gave away $113 million this year, with Assistant Homeland Security Secretary Sarah R. Saldana testifying to Congress on Wednesday that they didn’t need the money because there weren’t enough illegal immigrants to hold or deport.
Ms. Saldana, who runs U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the chief deportation agency, also said estimates of the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. could be as high as 15 million. That is much more than the prevailing estimates of 11 million to 12 million, and it suggests a potentially bigger problem than the government has acknowledged.
“Probably every illegal alien could be removed. But that’s 12 million people — or 15 million, depending on what estimate you look at,” Ms. Saldana told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I don’t think anybody who thinks that we can go about, rounding up people, with a $6.5 billion budget, as generous as that is, and as grateful as I am for it, believes that we can go and do that under that budget. There are reasons to make wise and smart and effective immigration priorities.”
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official downplayed Ms. Saldana’s estimate of the unauthorized population, saying the agency doesn’t track that statistic and the director was citing it only informally.
Senators seized on her claims that ICE can’t deport everyone. As long as she is giving back money, they said, she can’t complain that her department doesn’t have adequate resources.
“You gave away $100 million despite your repeated complaints about how you’re doing the best you can with limited resources,” Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, told the director.
The money did stay within the Homeland Security Department but went to the Secret Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies with no responsibility for immigration enforcement.
Ms. Saldana, a former U.S. attorney in Texas, found herself on the defensive over President Obama’s 2014 immigration policy, which carves most illegal immigrants out of any danger of being deported, and is instead supposed to focus only on serious criminals and more recent illegal immigrants.
She said her agency takes that charge seriously and that she and her agents and officers try their best to deport every criminal illegal immigrant they can. Most of the releases, she said, are because of court orders or because of a Supreme Court case that limits how long illegal immigrants can be detained when their home countries won’t take them back.
“I would like my hands on every criminal alien who’s in the country illegally and to be able to remove them,” she said.
But she acknowledged her agency is having far less success in deporting them. Deportations of criminals from within the interior of the U.S. have dropped from about 135,000 in fiscal year 2012 to about 63,000 in fiscal year 2015, which ended Sept. 30.
When Ms. Saldana confirmed those numbers, Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, was stunned.
“You’re actually removing less than half as many criminal aliens than you were in just 2011, and you’re turning back money you were given for that very purpose,” he said.
The dispute could end up playing out in the Supreme Court, where Mr. Obama has asked the justices to reinstate his 2014 deportation amnesty designed to grant tentative legal status, work permits and Social Security numbers to as many as 4 million illegal immigrants.
In court documents, the administration argues that it has to set priorities for whom it will remove and whom it will ignore because it is given only a certain amount of money to spend on enforcement.
Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, told The Washington Times in an interview that refusing the $113 million undercuts that court argument.
“At a time when they’re releasing criminal aliens left and right and there’s a surge at the border, they decided to take money from the critical function of detention and removal of aliens, most of whom are criminals, and put it into other functions in DHS,” Ms. Vaughan said. “There’s no more obvious indication of how much lower a priority the removal of criminal aliens is — or enforcement in general.”
Ms. Saldana even found herself taking heat from a Democrat on the panel, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who said he supports legalizing illegal immigrants but has been “totally dissatisfied” by Homeland Security’s response to a case involving Jean Jacques, a Haitian immigrant accused in the stabbing death of a 25-year-old woman in Norwich.
Ms. Saldana said her agency had to release Jacques, who had served a 17-year sentence for attempted murder, because of the 2001 Supreme Court decision that requires release of immigrants whose home countries won’t take them back. In this case, that country was Haiti.
Mr. Blumenthal rejected the explanation, saying the administration should have used tools it has to put pressure on Haiti.
“It isn’t a question of whether he had to be released; it’s a question of what was done to deport him and why he is not back in Haiti and Casey Chadwick still alive,” he said. “I accept your statement that some efforts were made, but they were abysmally and abhorrently inadequate.”
Also Wednesday the Government Accountability Office released a report saying the administration has only “limited capabilities” to detect bogus asylum requests.
The GAO said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Executive Office of Immigration Review don’t even have a sense of the risks of fraud in the asylum programs they oversee, and officers are often forced to make decisions on whether to admit someone based purely on their own testimony.
Even when asylum officers do try to do follow-up investigations by asking for verification from overseas, those requests are ignored or delayed, and the officers here are pressed to make decisions quickly and without getting all the information they feel they need.
The agencies also have been overwhelmed by demand as would-be immigrants and their attorneys have concluded that the asylum process is a shortcut to gaining a foothold in the U.S. Asylum claims jumped from about 47,000 in 2010 to more than 108,000 in 2014 as illegal immigrants from Central America, who have surged the border in recent years, discovered the asylum process.
GAO investigators found problems at nearly every step of the way: USCIS officers aren’t properly trained to spot fraud; the agency’s fraud-detection unit doesn’t prescreen applications to weed out potentially bogus ones beforehand and neither USCIS, which is part of Homeland Security, nor EOIR, which is part of the Justice Department, has a sense of the risk of fraud anyway.
Homeland Security’s liaison to the GAO, Jim H. Crumpacker, agreed with all 10 suggestions for trying to clean up operations, including following through on a major fraud risk assessment, collecting data so the department knows how asylum and fraud officers try to combat fraud already, and provide better training for those officers.
USCIS spokesman Joe Holstead said the agency has already completed two of the suggested changes to improve its data collection, and expects to finish most of the other recommendations by next fall.
He also reiterated the agency’s training, which he called “comprehensive,” and pointed to new anti-fraud teams he said have been stood up to try to get a handle on the situation.
“Additionally, USCIS’ role in attaining multiple criminal convictions demonstrates the Department’s commitment and investment of significant resources toward detecting and pursuing potential asylum fraud,” he said in a statement.