- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2021

Acting ICE Director Tae Johnson signaled Thursday that his agency’s program to recruit local law enforcement agencies to cooperate on immigration enforcement may have to be scrapped or rebuilt, and echoed the worries of immigrant-rights activists that people aren’t reporting crimes to departments that do cooperate with ICE.

The comments marked a reversal for the agency, whose past directors have said 287(g) agreements are a critical force multiplier and who have cast doubt on claims that immigrant communities won’t report crimes to local police for fear of getting deported.

“I totally understand why people take the position that it’s just not worth it,” Mr. Johnson told the House Appropriations Committee. “It stymies people from reporting crimes. Oftentimes, people who are subject to domestic violence won’t pick up the phone because they’re afraid of ICE or immigration implications. These are all valid, fair points.”

In his testimony, he said nearly 14,000 people who had been under ICE monitoring through ankle bracelets or phone check-ins have absconded over the last 18 months, adding that there’s limited personnel his agency can dedicate to trying to track them down.

“It really comes down to a resource issue,” said Mr. Johnson, a career official at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement who is serving as the chief while President Biden awaits confirmation of his pick to lead the office.

The news was worrying for Republicans on the committee, who are looking with alarm at the surge of new migrants jumping the border and being released into communities.

About 20,000 of those migrants have been released without getting a court date, meaning they aren’t in ICE’s systems at all. Until they voluntarily show up, or until some new system can be devised to transfer over Border Patrol records, ICE doesn’t even know they’re free in the country.

Mr. Johnson also revealed that only about 25% of families showing up at the border are being immediately expelled back to Mexico.

Other administration officials had insisted early in the surge that the majority of families, as well as single adults, showing up at the border are being pushed back across the boundary under a pandemic health emergency order, known as Title 42.

Mr. Johnson warned that if Title 42 authority disappears, either because of court decisions or because the administration decides to erase it, his agency will be quickly overwhelmed.

Currently between 3,000 and 3,500 single adult migrants are being caught at the border each day and almost all are being returned within hours. If ICE had to process and hold more of those, he said his agency’s resources could quickly be exhausted.

On the other hand, ICE’s throughput has declined dramatically, with both arrest and deportation numbers plummeting under the Biden administration.

However, Mr. Johnson said they are increasing arrests in some “priority” areas of public safety such as migrants with criminal records that show assault or domestic violence or drunken driving cases.

He said he expects those trends to continue.

“Although our overall arrests are down, the data shows that individuals with the highest level of criminality is up,” Mr. Johnson said. “We expect that trend to continue and while our overall arrest numbers might not ever be as high as they were I do expect the number of violent offenders to increase because folks are spending their time on those types of cases.

On the growing issue of communities reluctant or refusing to work with ICE, Mr. Johnson said he understands the resistance but said he would like to get whatever cooperation he can.

Still, he indicated the 287(g) program, which currently allows local sheriff’s and police departments to scour their prisons and jails for deportable migrants then begin the deportation process, might be too tainted.

He suggested a conversation to come up with a set of crimes that all sides agree are serious enough to demand deportation.

“If we start there then I think there would be some opportunities to find some middle ground and potentially salvage it or come up with something, a new program, that sort of addresses the issue that we’re all trying to solve,” he said.

Past ICE chiefs have been more enthusiastic about 287(g), calling it an essential part of the agency’s mission of getting dangerous people out of the country.

Matt Albence, who served as acting director for part of the Trump administration, told The Washington Times last year that resistance to 287(g) was “politically based, not based on public safety or based on facts.”

He also disagreed with the notion that migrants stop reporting crimes when they believe local police are entangled with ICE.

Mr. Albence, in the June 2020 interview with The Times, said ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center in Vermont receives all immigration inquiries for arrests, and he said the number increases each year, “which means people are reporting crimes to local police departments.”

“I think that’s an argument people put out there to obfuscate the issue,” he said. “The issue is are there people in the country illegally committing crimes we can do something about? … We actually can prevent crime because we can get recidivists off the street.”

Across the Capitol on Thursday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was testifying in a more combative session with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where Republicans said the new Biden team is responsible for the border mess.

“Just look at that surge,” said Sen. Rob Portman, the ranking Republican, as he pointed to a chart showing the increase in illegal crossings tied to Inauguration Day.

At another point, Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, called Mr. Mayorkas “in a state of denial” about the situation.

Mr. Mayorkas, for his part, blamed the backlog of migrant children at Border Patrol stations on the Trump administration, saying it should have been aware that the Biden team was going to change policies and allow the children to stay as an exception to the Title 42 health emergency, and should have gotten capacity ready.

In an exchange with Sen. Josh Hawley, the secretary also denied saying “we’re not telling you not to come” when it came to migrants looking to head north.

“I don’t recall saying that,” Mr. Mayorkas said.

During a March press briefing at the White House, Mr. Mayorkas said: “We are not saying, ‘Don’t come.’ We are saying, ‘Don’t come now because we will be able to deliver a safe and orderly process to them as quickly as possible.’”

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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