WASHINGTON, D.C. — As President Donald Trump doubles down on alleged immigrant gang members on Friday in Long Island, New York, there is growing concern among immigrant advocates and experts that more people without criminal records will be detained and deported to fulfill his campaign promise of mass deportation.
John Sandweg, the former Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and former Acting General Counsel of the Department of Homeland Security, sees the current administration’s detention practices of immigrants without criminal records as a waste of financial and physical resources.
Sandweg, who served under the Obama administration between 2013 and 2014, thinks it doesn’t make much sense that federal immigration agents no longer adhere to enforcement policies that prioritized deportations of immigrants with serious offenses, rather than immigrants with U.S.-based family members.
“Their priority is to focus on individuals who can be deported quickly.”
“The reality is that [the ICE agency does] have a priority and it’s to try and set a record number of deportations,” Sandweg said to a small group of reporters at an immigration panel on Friday. “To actually do that — with the complexity of the immigration enforcement system, you actually do need to implement a priority. And their priority is to focus on individuals who can be deported quickly. In plain English, these are individuals who do not need to see an immigration court judge.”
Given the 610,000-case backlog in the immigration court system, it’s easier to detain and deport immigrants as they annually check in at ICE offices to have their order of supervision with work permit renewed, rather than to wait for immigrants to have their legal statuses sorted out through the judicial process.
Sandweg’s reasoning aligns with the recent high-profile deportations of immigrants who have already served old criminal convictions. In 2008, Jesus Lara, an undocumented father of four U.S. citizen children, was cited for driving without a license, a privilege not bestowed on undocumented immigrants in Ohio. Lara was jailed, then later turned over to ICE where he was given a final removal order in 2011. He has checked in every year to receive a one-year deportation reprieve and also placed under an order of supervision with a work permit.
Earlier this year, ICE agents detained Lara as he checked in. He was deported to Mexico last week.
“The difference then was the Obama administration was operating under the Morton memo which gave guidance for exercising discretion,” David Leopold, Chair of the Immigration Practice Group at Ulmer & Berne LLP, said at the same panel.
Leopold explained that ICE agents under the Obama administration didn’t detain Lara then because he has been in the country for a long time, pays taxes, and has four U.S. citizen children, all criteria that agents should consider in accordance with exercising discretion when detaining immigrants for deportation proceedings.
“Things changed on the 20th of January [Election Day] and in February when Secretary Kelly issued his memorandum. Mr. Lara had a check in later on that month and at that point, he was ankle-braceleted,” Leopold added. “We’re seeing daily raids — I call these silent raids because where they’re occurring are at these check-ins.”
“ICE says, ‘come in’ and you can go to a check-in,” Leopold explained. “They’re the easiest to arrest — they comply. Mr. Lara complied. Why can’t I go to a federal court to stop it? Because you’re dealing with pure discretion. The reason they’re going after those cases is because there is no judicial review. It’s all up to the agency.”
“You’re dealing with pure discretion. The reason they’re going after those cases is because there is no judicial review.”
Sandweg said that the current approach to immigration detention actually hurts public safety, particularly because the administration is pulling resources needed to pursue criminals-at-large to fill beds and planes with people who are “easy pickings.”
“Those people are easy pickings — they can be deported within a week or tomorrow.” Sandweg said. “The problem is they aren’t criminals. When you’re trying to find public safety threats, you can’t discriminate whether they’re quickly deportable or it’s going to take a long time. My philosophy is that you want agents to focus on public safety. ‘Guys we can’t get them all. Let’s get the ones who are causing the most harm.’ I don’t care if it takes us two years to deport them or two weeks, let’s go get the ones that are causing the most harm.”
“This [administration] has been the exact opposite, which is I don’t care if they’re causing big problems or not, let’s get the ones who we can remove the quickest,” Sandweg added. “When you start filling the beds and the planes, you start ditching these things that focus on criminals at large. No one is looking for them anymore, they’re too busy looking at people who are checking in.”