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Report: ICE Fugitive Operations Program Billed as Having Explicit National Security Focus Is Missing its Enforcement Mark

Press Release
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Report: ICE Fugitive Operations Program Billed as Having Explicit National Security Focus Is Missing its Enforcement Mark

WASHINGTON — The federal fugitive operations program established in 2003 to locate, apprehend and remove fugitive aliens who pose a threat to the community has instead focused chiefly on arresting unauthorized immigrants without criminal convictions, according to a Migration Policy Institute report issued today.

The report, Collateral Damage: An Examination of ICE’s Fugitive Operations Program, found that 73 percent of the nearly 97,000 people arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fugitive operations teams between the program’s inception in 2003 and early 2008 were unauthorized immigrants without criminal records.

Despite the National Fugitive Operations Program’s mandate to apprehend dangerous fugitives, arrests of fugitive aliens with criminal convictions have represented a steadily declining share of total arrests by the teams, accounting for just 9 percent of total arrests in 2007, down from 32 percent in 2003, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s own estimates.

The National Fugitive Operations Program has experienced greater growth than any other DHS immigration enforcement program – its budget rising from $9 million in 2003 to $218 million last year. In its first five years, the program has received more than $625 million. Yet ICE estimated last October that 557,762 fugitive aliens remain in the United States.

“The National Fugitive Operations Program has not delivered on its promise to find and remove dangerous fugitives. The evidence suggests that this is a case of ‘mission drift,’ in which the program has used public funding intended for one purpose for something entirely different: Apprehending non-violent non-fugitives – who constitute the easiest targets,” said MPI Non-resident Fellow Michael Wishnie, a Clinical Professor at Yale Law School.

While the 104 fugitive operations teams (up from eight in 2003) are supposed to arrest fugitive aliens – i.e. those with outstanding deportation, exclusion or removal orders, or those who have failed to report to the Department of Homeland Security as ordered – fully 40 percent of those arrested in 2007 had no outstanding removal order (known as ordinary status violators).

The arrests of ordinary status violators have increased since ICE in 2006 increased the quota for each seven-person fugitive operations teams from 125 arrests annually to 1,000.

Said Muzaffar Chishti, Director of MPI’s Office at New York University School of Law: “It is troubling that a program billed as having an explicit national security focus instead appears to be aimed mainly at arresting non-criminal unauthorized immigrants through the use of SWAT-like operations – typically in residential settings – that increase the risks to law enforcement personnel and civilians alike, alienate communities and misdirect scarce personnel resources.”

A series of ICE memos obtained by the Immigration Justice Clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which were released today, illustrate the 2006 policy shift that de-emphasized the focus on high-priority targets in favor of increased arrests.

“ICE has created tremendous bureaucratic incentives for fugitive operation teams to abandon focus on high-priority targets in favor of a shotgun approach of undisciplined home raids. ICE’s home raids have primarily led to the arrests of individuals who posed no risk to society and have come at a significant cost to immigrant families and to ICE’s own enforcement priorities,” said Cardozo law professor Peter L. Markowitz, who directs the Immigration Justice Clinic and represented plaintiffs in the FOIA lawsuit.

The MPI report offers a series of recommendations, including:

  • The 1,000-person annual arrest quota per team should be replaced with a system that prioritizes the arrest of dangerous fugitives over all other arrests. And the arrest priority system should be re-ordered to reflect that individuals with no criminal history or with in absentia removal orders should be designated the lowest priority.
  • Fugitive operations teams should approach only targeted houses and persons.
  • ICE should redeploy resources when the teams are unable to identify or pursue dangerous fugitives.
  • ICE should develop a standard operating procedure addressing constitutional and humanitarian concerns that arise during fugitive operations team enforcement actions. All team agents should be required to undergo comprehensive training in accordance with this procedure, in addition to their basic law-enforcement training.
  • Substantial National Fugitive Operations Team resources should be directed at improving the often error-ridden database from which information about fugitive aliens is drawn.

The report is available online here.

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The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Washington, DC dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide. MPI provides analysis, development and evaluation of migration and refugee policies at the local, national and international levels.