For more than five years, U.S. immigration authorities have touted the success of a national program aimed at arresting and deporting dangerous criminals and fugitives.
In frequent early morning raids at homes in Los Angeles and around the country, federal fugitive teams have sought out immigrants with criminal records or outstanding deportation orders.
And year after year, the Department of Homeland Security has received congressional support and funds to expand the program.
But new data released Wednesday showed that 73% of the nearly 97,000 people arrested by the fugitive operations teams between 2003 and early 2008 did not have criminal records, according to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
The data, along with newly released internal memos, show that the agency abandoned its stated mission to go after dangerous fugitives and instead targeted noncriminal undocumented workers -- the "low-hanging fruit," said Peter L. Markowitz, director of the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York, who sued the government to get the documents.
The memos show that in 2006, Immigration and Customs Enforcement changed its focus from criminals and fugitives to increasing the number of arrests.
Each seven-member fugitive operations team was expected to increase its annual arrests from 125 to 1,000. At the same time, the agency stopped requiring that 75% of those arrested be criminals and allowed the teams to include non-fugitives in their tally, the memos show.
That, the report said, meant teams were arresting any illegal immigrant they encountered during their operations, regardless of whether the person had an outstanding deportation order or a criminal conviction.
Those early morning home raids drew criticism for splitting families and instilling fear in immigrant communities.
"Maids and landscapers are precisely the people being rounded up by this program," said Margot Mendelson, coauthor of the report.
Fugitives with criminal histories made up 9% of arrests in fiscal year 2007, compared with 32% in 2003, according to the report, which relied on Department of Homeland Security numbers.
Unauthorized workers with no criminal records or outstanding deportation orders made up 40% of arrests in fiscal year 2007, compared with 18% in 2003.
The policy change coincided with increased demands by the Bush administration to step up enforcement, Markowitz said.
"At the time they were inflating these arrest quotas . . . they were under tremendous pressure from the right of the Republican Party to look tough on immigration enforcement," he said. "The law enforcement strategy was hijacked by the politics of the day."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said the agency had always focused on fugitives who posed a threat to national security or public safety but that agents enforced federal law if they came across other illegal immigrants.
"The reality is that when we go to locations looking for individuals with prior deportation orders, it is not uncommon for us to encounter other immigration violators," she said. "When that occurs, we are going to take proper enforcement action."
The program continues to be a success, with the fugitive population declining by 12% in the last 18 months, she said. The teams carefully plan their arrests and go to addresses based on intelligence information about immigrants' whereabouts, officials said.
But the report said the addresses were part of an inaccurate database and often resulted in searches at outdated addresses.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has not made any changes to the fugitive operations program, but she issued a directive calling for a review.
There are 104 teams, up from eight when the program started in 2003.
During that time, the budget has grown from $9 million to $218 million.
If the Department of Homeland Security decides to maintain the program, it should be used "strategically to target the worst of the worst," Markowitz said.
"That way, they can get the most bang for their buck on this program," he said.