The Obama administration left the government’s deportation force in disarray, according to a new report Thursday from the Homeland Security inspector general. The report said deportation officers are so overloaded that they lose track of important cases, leaving illegal immigrants roaming communities when they could have been kicked out.
The problem is so bad that officers may even be losing track of critical national security cases, the inspector general said.
The surge of illegal immigrants under President Obama made the situation worse, adding hundreds of thousands of cases to the docket, even though officers weren’t given any new tools to help them deal with the backlog.
Officers in Washington, D.C., average more than 10,000 cases per person, while deportation officers in Atlanta have more than 5,000 cases assigned to them.
“You might work 18 hours a day, but you still won’t get caught up,” one officer told the inspector general.
The report could give ammunition to President Trump, who has proposed a massive “deportation force” to speed up the arrest and ouster of illegal immigrants, and who has called for a major expansion in detention beds, so more immigrants can be held — making it easier to deport them.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it has more than 2.3 million migrants on its docket right now who are out in the community, rather than being detained. Of those, nearly 1 million have already gone through their court cases and have been ordered removed.
“ICE prioritizes cases on the non-detained docket to focus on those with the greatest threat to national security, public safety and border security,” Jennifer D. Elzea, ICE’s press secretary, said in a statement.
Deporting an illegal immigrant requires getting the home country to issue travel documents — and that home country is often resistant, not wanting to take back a troubled individual. Overloaded agents let those tricky cases slip, leaving illegal immigrants on the streets.
Two years ago that led to a worst-case scenario with a man from Haiti. Jean Jacques, who was released from prison after serving time for attempted murder, but whose home country refused to take him, questioned whether he really was Haitian.
Months after he was released, Jacques would go on to kill a young woman after a drug dispute with her boyfriend.
The Jacques case spurred several reviews, including this new report from the inspector general that identified a series of breakdowns at ICE.
Deportation officers’ caseload includes both immigrants who are in detention, and those that have been released back into the communities, for various reasons. Those in custody are relatively easy to deport, but those released are tougher to manage.
The inspector general said the surge of illegal immigrants under President Obama fed the work overload, but said ICE does a poor job of spreading the work around, leaving some offices worse-off than others.
The staffing shortage has been made worse by the Obama administration’s decision to move officers to the southwest to deal with the surge from Central America, overloading offices in the interior of the country.
“In a particularly troubling example of overworked staff, a [deportation officer] at one field office we visited reported that a heavy workload limited oversight of non-detained aliens in that geographic area that ICE had flagged as risks to national security,” the investigators said in the new report.
The audit found the problem to be so bad that ICE is likely losing track of illegal immigrants.
“Unless they verify the status of immigration proceedings, ICE [deportation officers] may not know about aliens who fail to report for court appearances and, thus, whose names should be forwarded to the fugitive operations unit. Without checking on criminal history, DOs may be unaware of aliens who have committed crimes and should be detained,” the inspector general said.
ICE also doesn’t have clear guidance for how cases should be prioritized and managed, the inspector general said.
In its official reply to the report, ICE accepted all five of the inspector general’s recommendations, including updating and issuing guidance to officers, rejiggering its caseload, standardizing training and trying to figure out ways to work better with foreign countries.
Ms. Elzea, the ICE spokeswoman, said Mr. Trump has already taken steps that could help on many of those areas, including his early executive order calling for a tripling of ICE’s workforce and an expansion of detention space.
The president has also signaled that foreign countries that refuse to take back their illegal immigrants will face penalties in existing law. Mr. Obama and his predecessor, President George W. Bush, were reluctant to use those powers, saying it could harm international relations.
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