As the Obama Administration gears up to move full-steam ahead with Cabinet appointments and policy initiatives, the direction that the new Congress and the new President will take on immigration reform will be interesting to watch.
The recent announcement by Assistant Secretary Julie Myers that she is stepping down from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a reminder of how critical the enforcement equation is to any credible immigration reform effort.
ICE will no doubt continue its excellent work. The question will focus on how a new administration will prioritize its top enforcement goals. For example, will worksite enforcement remain as high a priority under the new administration as under the Bush White House? More likely, the new administration will place a higher priority on finding and deporting criminal aliens. Both are important goals, but the reality of a limited federal budget will require the new administration to prioritize which are most important to its overarching immigration policy.
Priorities always please some constituencies, and rankle others. For evidence of this, look at the inability of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Until our government sets a coherent national policy for immigration, those agencies such as ICE (that are tasked with enforcing federal law) will continue to be whipsawed between the various extremes — criticized on the one hand for not enforcing the law aggressively enough, and criticized on the other hand for enforcing it too aggressively.
Nonetheless, there have been a number of successes in immigration enforcement over the past few years – ranging from tightening visa vulnerabilities (such as the US VISIT and SEVIS programs) to cracking down on violent human trafficking criminal organizations.
Under Myers leadership, for example, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of illegal aliens repatriated to their native countries (349,041 in FY 2008, up from 288,664 in FY 2007). Importantly, ICE has focused its efforts particularly on aliens who not only have been staying in the country illegally, but also have previous criminal convictions.
The Secure Communities Initiative, a new program launched by ICE in the last month, is an admirable step to facilitate cooperation with local and federal law enforcement to identify criminal aliens incarcerated in the nation’s jails to prevent them from being released back onto the streets.
Through its Operation Community Shield program, ICE has also been able to disrupt and dismantle violent street gangs by working in partnership with state and local law enforcement officials to arrest more than 11,200 gang members since 2005.
Unlike the more politically sensitive issues such as worksite enforcement, almost everybody can agree that removing violent gang offenders and criminal felons from our borders will make our communities safer, and ICE should be applauded for its efforts.
I am hopeful that Congress, which has shown support for these initiatives in the past, will continue to do so. This will ensure that ICE continues to evolve into one of the nation’s premier law enforcement agencies and can get the job done that the public has urged our government to address: to return integrity to our immigration system.