Even as Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Sec. Jeh Johnson has pledged to focus on undocumented immigrants who pose a “demonstrable risk to national security,” a new report shows that federal immigration officials continue to detain people with no criminal record at all.
At least two-thirds of targets detained in April by local or state police departments on behalf of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency “had no criminal conviction of any type,” according to the Syracuse University research organization’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) report.
Detainers, known as “immigration holds,” are used by federal immigration officials to ask local and state law enforcement agencies to hold suspected immigrants in their facilities until ICE agents can come pick them up for potential deportation proceedings. The ICE agency issued 7,993 detainers this April, the TRAC report stated. Only 32 percent of those individuals had been convicted of a crime and just 19 percent had a felony conviction.
Since the majority of targets lacked criminal convictions, the data in the new report seems to challenge Johnson’s pledge that ICE would go after individuals who have been “convicted of specifically enumerated crimes” — in other words, serious crimes.
The statistics come even after ICE requested local and state law enforcement departments to detain 30 percent fewer individuals in April 2015 than the agency did in October 2014, a month before the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) disbanded a controversial federal immigration collaborative program used to target criminal immigrants through local police departments.
In comparison, ICE issued 11,355 detainers in October 2014, one month before Johnson announced that his agency would dissolve the Secure Communities program. That program allowed local and state police departments to share biometric information, like fingerprints which are electronically run through ICE’s immigration database. If the fingerprint matches a record in the database, then ICE can issue an immigration detainer asking state or local agencies to detain a person after he or she would otherwise be released.
Johnson replaced Secure Communities in November 2014 with the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), which seeks to target criminal immigrants who have been convicted of serious criminal offenses or who pose a danger to national security. Local and state law enforcement agencies could continue to share biometric information through PEP. With some special circumstance exceptions, ICE would replace detainers with “requests for notification,” or a request that local agencies let ICE know of a pending release. Jennifer Elzea, an ICE spokeswoman, told Washington Post’s Jerry Markon that detention requests are “on a case-by-case basis with a priority for detention of serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety.”
But even as ICE detention requests are reserved for serious criminal offenders, federal immigration authorities are still going after immigrants recently released from prisons or jails because of serious criminal convictions from years ago. For example, Hugo Medina — who was convicted of driving under the influence in 2010, of petty theft in 2014, and of drug possession earlier this year — was led out of his house while his mother, wife, and three young children sobbed inside, the Los Angeles Times reported.
As TRAC pointed out in the report, detainer usage was already on the decline prior to Johnson’s announcement. Between the start of the 2013 fiscal year through the first half of the 2014 fiscal year, TRAC found a 39 percent decrease in the number of ICE detainers issued. That number is part of an overall decline from the Bush administration era when ICE issued more than 10,000 detainers monthly in 2007.
Immigrant advocates have long criticized federal collaborations with local law enforcement agencies, stating that it deters victims and witnesses from reporting crimes and targets immigrants who came to the attention of local law enforcement for minor traffic infractions. According to the Human Rights Watch, “25 percent of prosecuted cases were from ICE referrals” in 2012.