- The Washington Times
Tuesday, April 5, 2022

The Department of Homeland Security will deploy teams of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers into communities to track down illegal immigrants the Biden administration caught and released at the border last year and who have since gone AWOL, The Washington Times has learned.

Some fugitive operations teams at ICE, who had been used to go after serious criminals, will be sent after the border jumpers, according to a memo detailing the new policy, known as “Operation Notice to Report Plus.”

But ICE officers doubt the chances of success, saying they have little hope of tracking down people who gave bad addresses to the government and haven’t built enough of a digital footprint to be found otherwise.

“We’re literally looking for ghosts,” one ICE source said. “This whole thing’s crazy.”

The assignment is particularly aggravating for ICE officers who feel they’re being tasked to play clean-up for the administration’s bungling.

The targets of the operation were caught by the Border Patrol last year and were in custody. But they were released without being given an immigration court summons and have ignored follow-up efforts to reach them.

“Part of me wonders whether this is meant to be effective, or if it’s largely a messaging exercise meant to persuade the public and the courts that this administration takes the laws seriously. I guess time will tell,” said Jon Feere, former chief of staff at ICE in the Trump administration.

ICE, in a statement to The Times, wouldn’t comment on the operation, calling it a “law enforcement sensitive” matter that conforms to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ priorities of “national security, public safety and border security” cases.

The new operation comes even as the administration prepares for another surge of migrants this spring that could obliterate last year’s record-shattering numbers.

During the worst of the 2021 surge, Border Patrol agents were so overwhelmed that they didn’t have time to process and issue a Notice to Appear (NTA), the official immigration court summons, to all of the people they were catching and releasing. Instead, they issued a Notice to Report (NTR), which took about 10 minutes, or far less than the hour it takes to issue an NTA.

The difference is more than just the name of the form.

An NTA enters a migrant into deportation proceedings, and they can be ordered removed by an immigration judge if they don’t show up for their hearings.

Those given NTRs are not officially in deportation court proceedings. Instead, an NTR asks them to check in with an ICE office within 60 days and, in some cases, to collect an NTA.

Tens of thousands have failed to do so.

ICE wouldn’t talk numbers with The Times, but in communications to Congress, Mr. Mayorkas revealed that from late March to the end of July, 104,171 illegal immigrants were caught and released with NTRs. Of those, 97,564 were beyond the 60-day window and 47,705 had failed to check in.

That works out to 49% who hadn’t checked in after 60 days, or substantially worse than the 25% refusal rate Mr. Mayorkas had claimed in testimony to the Senate in September.

Faced with the grim numbers, ICE late last year launched Operation Horizon, which fired off warning letters to the resisters begging them to come in and get their NTAs. The letters promised migrants they wouldn’t be detained, barring major criminal issues with their records.

Thousands of those summonses didn’t produce results, prompting the latest operation.

“It’s clear that the Notice to Report and Parole/Alternatives to Detention processes have failed. This is nothing more than catch-and-release by another name,” said Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who has been closely tracking the border situation.

“The only real solution to address border security is to enforce the law, which Biden’s team is clearly unwilling to do,” the senator told The Times.

NTRs unite both sides of the immigration debate.

Immigrant-rights advocates say they create all sorts of problems for the migrants, who have to go through extra hoops to figure out the immigration process they face.

“People who are given NTRs at a moment of what is crisis in their own lives are frankly set up for failure,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council.

He said it’s incumbent on Homeland Security to get NTAs into the hands of everyone who was released on an NTR to give them an opportunity to present their case.

“If the government’s going to force you or me to go through a legal process with potentially serious legal consequences for us, the government needs to meet its burden and make sure we received the proper paperwork,” he said. “If the government can’t do that for a specific reason the government needs to figure out a way to make that right.”

According to the memo laying out the new operation, migrants with “criminal histories” will take top priority as officers decide who to target.

Officers were instructed to keep the operation “low profile in nature” because many of the targets will be families. They were told to wear plain clothes rather than uniforms, to keep body armor under their clothes, and to use unmarked vehicles.

Officers were given permission to arrest and detain migrants they thought were security or safety risks, and were also told they could bring some criminal cases to federal prosecutors.

But officers were specifically told they should not arrest other illegal immigrants they happen to come across as they’re tracking down the border fugitives.

“The approval to carry out an enforcement action against targeted noncitizens will not authorize enforcement actions against other noncitizens encountered during the operation,” the memo said.

The operation was scheduled to start April 1 and run through June 30.

One source said there are more than 3,600 initial targets, but officers are expecting more people to be added to the list during the 90 days.

ICE’s National Criminal Analysis and Targeting Center has been tasked with trying to develop leads to track down targets for the operation. Officers say they’re not expecting much.

The targets generally have no footprint beyond the addresses they gave, and those have already proved to be invalid. They haven’t been in the country long enough to generate other data, such as utility bills or car registration data, that could help the targeting center track them down.

“It’s a complete waste of time and resources that Mayorkas claims we already don’t have enough of,” said a second ICE source.

That source said even if the targets can be tracked down and pressured to go through their court proceedings, the administration might still just close their cases, giving them a free pass.

“That or they become the next protected class like the DACA aliens,” the source said, referring to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which for a decade has offered a deportation amnesty to “Dreamers,” immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children.

Also complicating plans is Mr. Mayorkas’ rules limiting places where ICE officers can operate. He has generally barred enforcement actions near what he has deemed “protected” locations — schools, day cares, parks, clinics, bus stops and organizations that provide social services.

That places many urban areas off-limits, leaving officers wondering how they’re supposed to track down and serve NTAs to people who live near one of the protected areas.

Mr. Feere said if Mr. Mayorkas is serious about wanting the operation to succeed, he should waive his rules.

“And then the question becomes what happens if they do locate some of these individuals,” he said. “Are they actually going to be deported? Are they going to be detained?

He said the issue of absconders will outlast the Biden administration.

“It’s important for the GOP to really think about the resources ICE is going to need in the coming years to clean up the mess created by this administration,” said Mr. Feere, who is now director of investigations at the Center for Immigration Studies.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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