WASHINGTON — In the contentious arena of immigration enforcement, Julie L. Myers sits in one of the hot seats. Myers is the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for finding and deporting illegal immigrants. When appointed by President Bush in 2005, Myers was criticized for her relative youth (she was 36), limited experience and personal connections to the administration. She was confirmed Wednesday by the Senate after a few uncertain weeks in which critics questioned her judgment and commitment to targeting employers of illegal immigrants. Myers won confirmation with the backing of ICE employees, some of whom went to Capitol Hill to testify on her behalf. She spoke to The Times about ICE's record, its controversial immigration raids, Congress' failure to overhaul immigration laws and her goals for next year.
What has ICE accomplished in 2007 in terms of immigration enforcement?
On the work-site enforcement side, both our criminal arrests [of employers] and administrative arrests [of illegal immigrants] are up well over 100%. We have transformed detention and removal by ending "catch and release" [in which illegal border-crossers were immediately let go because of a lack of detention space]. That is essential if you're seeking to restore the integrity of the immigration system. And we have reduced the time that other-than-Mexican detainees are held. The average length of stay has gone down from 90 days to 37.5 days -- that's good for taxpayers; that's good for the aliens.
In a number of high-profile ICE raids last year, children were separated from their parents when the parents were detained and deported. Has ICE made any policy changes to address this issue?
After New Bedford [the Massachusetts city where dozens of children of illegal immigrants were stranded after their parents were arrested in a raid], we partnered with the Division of Immigration Health Services . . . to do an initial triage to ask people about sole-caregiver and medical issues. We found that sometimes in raids people were not telling us the truth when we asked if they had children, but we found they were more willing to tell DIHS the truth. We're always looking to see if we can improve, but I will say our immigration laws put people in a difficult situation sometimes -- I mean, the folks who come into our country illegally, then have a child and put that child at risk.
When you were first appointed in 2005, a lack of detention space made it hard to detain illegal immigrants caught at the border. What is the situation now?
We need to be smarter and need to look at alternatives, like the electronic travel document program. You can't send someone back to their country until you get a valid travel document from that country. In the past, it was couriered or FedExed. Now we have partnerships with countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. We provide computers and a link to share information that the alien provides, including their criminal history, and these countries can provide back to us an electronic travel document that we can use to send the person on their way. It reduces the time to get the document from several weeks to days.
ICE is facing lawsuits over conditions in its detention facilities. Some are said to be chronically overcrowded or lacking adequate medical and dental care. What are you doing to address these problems?
We want to make sure every individual is treated safely and fairly, so we're adding oversight in our detention facilities. We've developed teams of quality-assurance specialists [to inspect our facilities]. We created that position in June and the first group started in the summer. . . . We also looked at all of our agreements with state and local institutions and developed a new boilerplate contract which explicitly provides for more oversight.
Are you working on alternatives to detention?
In two ways. We're expanding an alternative-to-detention plan [in which people are not detained while they await deportation] and looking at why it is in some parts of country that, if people on alternative detention are ordered to leave, they actually leave. In some areas we have high compliance, and in other areas it's low. How does that work? We want to get at root issues of why it's more successful in some areas than in others. One area where it works is Miami. Nongovernmental organizations are very involved there -- is that it?
We also have [illegal immigrants coming out of jails and into our custody]. . . . In 2006 we had 67,000 aliens, in 2007 we had 147,000 aliens and this year we expect 180,000. One thing we're doing -- including in California -- is modeled on New York and Arizona, where we provide for early parole for nonviolent aliens if they have a removal order [to be deported]. That saves money. New York has done this since 1995 and saved over $140 million; Arizona has done this for two years and saved $13.5 million.