John Morton, director of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency,… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
WASHINGTON – Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton announced his resignation Monday after more than four years at the head of the agency.
A senior Department of Homeland Security official familiar with the matter said that Morton’s departure was voluntary but acknowledged that the Obama administration was surprised by the timing as Congress is in the middle of debating a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.
“ICE has truly come of age and become an innovative, leading force in federal law enforcement,” Morton said in a memo announcing his exit to agency employees.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement that she was “deeply grateful” for Morton’s work.
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But the senior Homeland Security official, who asked not to be identified to discuss a personnel matter, said some in the department saw Morton as a weak manager.
He was also criticized by some outside the government for issuing the so-called Morton memos in 2011 that called for ICE to employ “prosecutorial discretion” in deciding whom to deport. Citing the agency’s limited resources, Morton permitted agents more leeway in deciding which individuals to question, detain and eventually deport.
ICE agents and attorneys were given a list of criteria to keep in mind when pursuing prosecutions, including criminal histories, possible threats to national security and “particular consideration” for those seeking college or advanced degrees in the United States.
The Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group looking to reduce legal and illegal immigration, called the policies "nothing less than the granting of administrative amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens currently in the United States."
Despite the use of “discretion,” ICE regularly set records in the number of people deported, which reached 409,840 during fiscal year 2012 alone.
The Los Angeles-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which focuses on workers’ rights, heralded Morton’s his departure as “tremendous news.”
“The president now has an opportunity to close the gap between his rhetoric and his policies on immigration,” the organization’s legal director, Chris Newman, said in a statement. “Was ICE a rogue agency, or was it just following orders? While we celebrate the removal of Morton, the deportation machine he helped build remains in place.”
After his departure from ICE in July, Morton will join Capital One Financial Corp. as a senior vice president and head of compliance beginning in August.
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