The head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Monday in Los Angeles that he has ended quotas on a controversial program designed to go after illegal immigrants with outstanding deportation orders.
John Morton, a career prosecutor who took over as assistant secretary of Homeland Security in May, said during a meeting with reporters that he planned to make more changes soon. The "fugitive operations" program, he said, should do what it was created to do -- target absconders who have already had their day in court.
"The fugitive operations program needs to focus first and foremost on people who have knowingly flouted an immigration removal order and within that category, obviously, we will focus first on criminals," he said.
Beginning in 2003, the immigration agency dispatched teams around the country to arrest and deport immigrants who had criminal records, who had ignored deportation orders or who had been deported and illegally reentered the United States.
Between March 1, 2003, and April 30, 2009, fugitive operations teams made more than 12,300 arrests in Los Angeles and surrounding counties.
During widely publicized sweeps, armed agents showed up at homes and apartment buildings and arrested tens of thousands of immigrants. Immigrant rights groups have criticized the raids, saying they divided families, created fear and resulted in the arrests of people without criminal convictions or outstanding deportation orders.
A report by the Migration Policy Institute earlier this year showed that 73% of the nearly 97,000 people arrested by immigration teams between 2003 and early 2008 did not have criminal records. The report also showed that in 2006 the agency stopped requiring that two-thirds of those arrested be criminals and allowed the teams to include non-fugitives in their tally.
Also in 2006, the teams were expected to increase their annual arrests from 125 to 1,000, according to internal memos cited in the report.
Morton said Monday that there was nothing wrong with targets but that hard quotas don't make sense.
"I just don't think that a law enforcement program should be based on a hard number that must be met," he said. "I just don't think that's a good way to go about it. So we don't have quotas anymore."
He said, however, that he wouldn't stop enforcing the law against immigrants who have fought their cases and lost. "I am not signaling in any way that we are not going to enforce the law against noncriminal fugitives," he said.
The immigration agency received $226 million for the program this year, up from $9 million in 2003. There are 104 fugitive operation teams nationwide, up from eight when the program started. Eight of the teams are based locally.
Margot Mendelson, who co-wrote the Migration Policy Institute report, said that eliminating quotas was an exciting first step but that she would like to see written guidance for agents. Without that, undocumented immigrants without criminal records or outstanding deportation orders are likely to continue being arrested during operations.
"Although eliminating quotas is absolutely necessary, it is certainly not sufficient to bring this program in line with its congressional mandates," she said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also announced Monday that the agency had identified 10 people who died while in immigration custody and were not previously included on the official list of deaths. The total number of deaths in agency custody since October 2003 now stands at 104. Morton directed his staff to review all documents and databases to ensure that deaths are being tracked.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the agency to obtain documents related to deaths of immigrant detainees, said that many of the deaths were due to inadequate healthcare.