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Half of immigrants held in US ‘priority’ program have no criminal conviction

12 Aug

A program intended to prioritize the deportation of immigrants who officials call “the worst of the worst” is missing its target, according to a new report.

An analysis of requests by federal officials for local jails to keep immigrants suspected of violating US immigration law in custody found half of the so-called “holds” were placed on people who had been arrested but actually had no criminal conviction.

Some had been picked up during traffic violations, or had their charges dropped. But their arrest triggered a process that ended with their federal immigration detention, and in many cases led to deportation proceedings.

Just one quarter had committed the most serious types of offenses, such as murder or sexual assault, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which is based at Syracuse University and obtained the records through an open records request. The most common conviction was for drunk driving, followed by miscellaneous assaults and simple traffic offenses.

This comes as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims it has narrowed the criteria it used under a started in 2008 called Secure Communities that contributed to a record number of deportations under Barack Obama. Under the program, federal officials ask local jails to hold undocumented immigrants they arrest in custody so that they can be transferred to federal immigration detention centers.

In November 2014, Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson said a new program called the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) would focus on “criminal aliens” convicted of felonies or several misdemeanor offenses. In fact, the most recent data shows ICE now targets people with no criminal record at a slightly higher rate than before.

ICE said it could not comment on an analysis performed by an external organization. But spokeswoman Sarah Rodriquez said the agency “continues to make significant strides … through PEP to ensure a common-sense approach that focuses enforcement resources on convicted criminals and individuals who threaten public safety and national security”.

The agency says it also tries to consider “important community policing needs”. But here too, it may be be falling short.

“The policies they are implementing are not keeping anyone secure,” said Maria Sotomayor, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Philadelphia, and who met with Johnson in May when he tried unsuccessfully to convince the city to implement the PEP program, which would have ended its “sanctuary city” policy that keeps ICE and police separate.

“I told him that because of these detainers, an immigrant who is a victim of a crime will think many times before calling the police to make a report because we could get picked up too,” recalled Sotomayor.

Before PEP was officially implemented last year, at least 377 local law enforcement agencies were refusing to honor some or all requests to hold immigrants in detention from ICE. The agency says 17 of the 25 jurisdictions with the highest number of declined detainers are now participating in the program.

Meanwhile, immigration advocates have sued to obtain more details how the PEP program actually differs from its predecessor.

“We suspect this PEP program was just a name change,” said Jessica Bansel, legal director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network.

For example, while ICE can now ask local jails to simply inform them when an immigrant is in custody, not to detain them, Bansel noted the agency also has two new detainer forms that are specifically designed to request custody of a person who recently entered the country illegally, but has not been convicted of a crime and is not a security risk.

“This sort of makes the whole thing a joke,” said Bansel.