By Robert L. Reeves & Nancy E. Miller

When then Senator Barack Obama was running for president, he promised to overhaul the government’s immigration policy.  At that time, it was assumed that he meant he was going to pursue comprehensive immigration reform in order to repair an obviously broken system.  However, as it turns out, an unprecedented number of people are being deported.  According to figures released by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) last week, a record number of non-citizens were deported in the fiscal year 2010.  From October 2009 through September 2010, 392,862 undocumented immigrants were removed from the United States.  This number exceeds by 3,000 the number of people deported in fiscal year 2009, which was a record number at that time.  The numbers released do not tell us whether these “undocumented immigrants” were people who had recently come to the United States; whether they had been here for years and had been unable to legalize their status (despite having worked hard, raised families and paid taxes all those years); or whether they had been here legally for decades but had been deported as a result of an indiscretion that occurred recently or a long time ago. 

According to the ICE report, of the almost 400,000 people deported, about 195,000 had prior criminal convictions.  That represents an increase of approximately 70% over the forced removal of non-citizens with criminal convictions in 2008.  The Obama administration justified ICE’s focus on those with criminal convictions by claiming that they were removing criminal illegal immigrants “who pose a national security or public safety threat” according to Homeland Security Deputy Press Secretary Matt Chandler. 

However, impartial studies do not justify their actions.  According to a 2007 study by a University of California – Irvine sociologist, the 3.5% incarceration rate for native-born men ages 18-39 was five times higher than the 0.7% rate for immigrant men in 2000.  In fact, while the unauthorized immigrant population doubled from 1994-2005, the violent crime rate fell by 34.2% and the property crime rate fell by 26.4% during that same period, including in border cities and other cities with large immigrant populations. The question that begs to be asked is “by what definition does ICE define “criminal illegal immigrants who pose a national security or public safety threat”?  Are they those who committed the misdemeanor offense of entering the United States without authorization?  It can’t mean those who overstayed their visas since that is a civil offense and not a criminal one.  And does one remain a public safety threat decades after they have committed the crime and years after they have served their sentence and been rehabilitated? 

One potential answer to these questions comes from word that the L. A. County Board of Supervisors has extended a policy whereby employees of the Sheriff’s Department are required to determine the immigration status of persons remanded to county jail and report those without status to federal authorities for possible removal.  More than a quarter of those inmates who were sent from county jail to immigration custody had been jailed on minor crimes.  Federal authorities wanted those who were jailed prior to conviction to be referred to them as well.  While Los Angeles refused to extend the policy that far, other governmental entities have referred those individuals to Federal authorities. 

The Obama administration claims this emphasis on enforcement is responsible for falling numbers of illegal immigrants coming to the United States.  However, most experts agree that the reason only 300,000 undocumented immigrants crossed the border annually between 2007 and 2009 as opposed to the roughly 850,000 who came annually from 2000-2005, is the result of the negative economy.  These same experts agree that the only way to solve the immigration problem is through comprehensive immigration reform. 

Once ICE comes to the door, it may be too late to do anything.  Before ICE knocks on the door, anyone with a deportation, exclusion or removal order or one who thinks s/he may be subject to removal should contact a knowledgeable and experienced immigration attorney to determine their rights and explore whether anything can be done in their case.