Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson listens during a joint news… (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
President Obama recently directed Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to examine U.S. immigration enforcement policies to see how the department can "conduct enforcement more humanely within the confines of the law."
The answer to the president's directive is surprisingly simple: Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, known as ICE, should eliminate "non-criminal re-entrants and immigration fugitives" as a priority category for deportation.
Current ICE policy prioritizes these individuals solely because they have previously been caught up in our immigration system, not because they represent a criminal threat. Taking them off the priority list would dramatically advance the president's goal of a more humane enforcement system and would enhance public safety and border security.
Over the last five years, the Obama administration has transformed our nation's immigration enforcement system, turning it into a system that emphasizes removing criminals and keeping the border secure. In 2010, civil immigration enforcement priorities were established to direct ICE officers and agents to focus their efforts accordingly. Since then, more than 80% of the people the agency has apprehended in the interior United States and deported have been convicted criminals.
However, official agency policy also continues to direct ICE officers and agents to investigate, arrest and deport those who unlawfully reentered the United States after having been previously deported, and those who have absconded from immigration court proceedings, regardless of their criminal history or how long they have lived, worked or raised families in the United States. As a result, each year, tens of thousands of people are treated as enforcement priorities based on their immigration history alone.
Many of these people have been in the United States for a decade or more. They often have spouses who are U.S. citizens and have never been convicted of a criminal offense. Frequently, they were deported years earlier and returned to this country to reunite with their families. As a result, focusing ICE's effort on them disproportionately separates parents and children, breadwinners from families, spouse from spouse.
To be sure, those who repeatedly cross our borders illegally or abscond from the immigration court bear culpability. However, making this population a priority detracts from ICE's ability to track down and arrest the increasing number of much more serious public safety threats the agency identifies.
All in all, it makes little sense to use limited enforcement resources in this way.
Contrary to what some might think, the majority of ICE agents and officers would not object to removing "non-criminal re-entrants and immigration fugitives" from their caseloads. Charged with enforcing a broken set of laws and administering a dysfunctional enforcement system, these hardworking and dedicated law enforcement officers often unfairly bear the brunt of the frustrations and absurdities that result from Congress' failure to reform our immigration laws. These officers know where their work will have the greatest impact.
When I was ICE's acting director, I had the privilege of discussing the agency's enforcement priorities with officers and agents across the country. I repeatedly heard these men and women express their support for clear policies that would focus their efforts on the most serious offenders and offenses.
The president was right to suggest a review of ICE's enforcement priorities. Much of the groundwork for the change I'm suggesting has already been laid, and this policy shift could be implemented immediately. It will not solve all of the challenges facing our broken immigration system, but until Congress acts, it can fulfill the president's call for a more humane system and make the country safer.
John Sandweg, acting director of ICE from August 2013 to February, also served as acting general counsel in the Department of Homeland Security.