WASHINGTON - Seeking to reverse a steep drop in deportations, U.S. immigration authorities have set controversial new quotas for agents.
At the same time, officials have stepped back from an Obama administration commitment to focus enforcement efforts primarily on illegal immigrants who are dangerous or have violent criminal backgrounds.
The moves, outlined in internal documents and a recent e-mail by a senior U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement official to field directors nationwide, differ from pledges by ICE chief John Morton and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, to focus enforcement on the most dangerous illegal immigrants.
That approach represented a break from the mass factory raids and neighborhood sweeps the Bush administration used to drive up arrests.
In a Feb. 22 memo, James Chaparro, head of ICE detention and removal operations, wrote that, despite record deportations of criminals, the overall number of removals was down. While ICE was on pace to achieve "the Agency goal of 150,000 criminal alien removals" for the year ending Sept. 30, total deportations were set to barely top 310,000, "well under the Agency's goal of 400,000," and nearly 20 percent behind last year's total of 387,000, he wrote.
Beyond stating ICE enforcement goals in unusually explicit terms, Chaparro laid out how the agency would pump up the numbers: by increasing detention space to hold more illegal immigrants while they await deportation proceedings; by sweeping prisons and jails to find more candidates for deportation and offering early release to those willing to go quickly; and, most controversially, with a "surge" in efforts to catch illegal immigrants whose only violation was lying on immigration or visa applications or re-entering the U.S. after deportation.
"These efforts must be sustained and will be closely monitored," Chaparro told field directors in the e-mail, which was obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting and The Washington Post.
ICE spokesman Brian Hale distanced the agency from Chaparro's remarks, saying, "portions of the memo were inconsistent with ICE, inconsistent with the administration's point of view and inconsistent with the secretary" and adding that the agency has moved to "clarify" the situation.
Chaparro issued a new memo Friday saying his earlier e-mail "signals no shift in the important steps we have taken to date to focus our priorities on the smart and effective enforcement of immigration laws, prioritizing dangerous criminal aliens . . . while also adhering to Congressional mandates to maintain an average daily [detention] population and meet annual performance measures." His new memo did not alter or rescind any of the strategies he had laid out.