Senator Patty Murray and her congressional Supercommittee may have failed in their attempts to craft a bipartisan plan for spending cuts. But that doesn't mean people are out of ideas. One that's gaining momentum: Slash what one group calls "the gaping fiscal black hole" that is immigration enforcement.
The group behind the rhetoric is the National Immigration Forum, a pro- immigrant think tank based in Washington, D.C. Last week, it released a report suggesting that the government could save $2.6 billion by, among other things, cutting unnecessary spending on the Border Patrol, whose budget in recent years has gone up $300 million annually.
"The vast majority of border enforcement efforts are focused on areas between ports of entry," NIF's report says, referring to the terrain monitored by the Border Patrol. "Yet the number of persons attempting to cross the border illegally between ports of entry is at its lowest level since 1972."
As we've reported over the past year, that discrepancy has left the Border Patrol looking for things to do—especially along the less-active northern border. A whistle-blower on the Olympic Peninsula, where an immigrant died while fleeing the Border Patrol, has said the same thing. Since there isn't an enormous influx of people sneaking over from Canada, the Border Patrol has gone after longtime residents, using tactics that raise civil-liberty concerns.
"The money is not being spent well," says Ada Williams Prince, policy director for the Seattle-based advocacy group OneAmerica, which has been monitoring Border Patrol activity along the northern border.
Concerns about Border Patrol spending are not only cropping up in the north. Joining the NIF last week for a conference call with reporters was the Texas Border Coalition, a group comprising mayors and city councilmembers in the Lone Star State.
In an interview with Seattle Weekly, coalition spokesperson Billy Moore explains that his group ardently believes in immigration enforcement. But he says the focus on Border Patrol spending has led to the neglect of enforcement at the ports of entry themselves, which consequently have become magnets for drug cartels and illegal immigrants.
Scrutiny of the Border Patrol is starting to have an effect. Recently, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano quietly ordered the agency to stop routine questioning of people on buses and trains near the northern border, one of the practices that had raised civil-liberty concerns. The problem is that not all immigration orders get followed.
Last summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement director John Morton issued a memo directing his staff to exercise "prosecutorial discretion." ICE prosecutors are not to go after every illegal immigrant who crosses their path. A new survey, however, shows that most continue to do so.
Morton's June 17 memo, addressed to all field-office directors, said it was seeking to ensure that enforcement resources were spent on the agency's priorities. Under the Obama administration, ICE has said it is focusing on deporting illegal immigrants who are criminals. Therefore those who are not criminals needn't be deported, the memo suggested. The directive told staff to consider an array of other factors as well, such as a person's ties to the community, including family members. If followed, this would have a huge impact, since many of the immigrants who are detained and deported have spouses and children who are American citizens.
But earlier this month, the American Immigration Lawyers Association released the results of a survey of immigration attorneys across the country, which read in part: "While a few ICE offices have begun to implement the guidance, most have not and many are actively resistant."
That is as true in Seattle as elsewhere. The survey cites one attorney who had been told by the local ICE office that it would not grant prosecutorial discretion "regardless of any positive factors." On other occasions, ICE has seemed willing to exercise discretion—but only when the local detention center, which holds immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings, is full. "If there are beds available, release requests are denied," the survey says.
All across the country, the use of discretion has been arbitrary, when it has happened at all, the survey says.
Last week, ICE presented new, even more specific, guidelines—for instance, that ICE attorneys should consider dropping cases against immigrants who have an immediate family member who is a citizen. ICE has started a review of its pending cases to sort them according to such guidelines. AILA hailed the guidelines as a "good next step."
Meanwhile, though, immigration enforcement—and the concomitant spending— continues apace, allowing immigrant advocates to make their case in fiscal as well as moral terms.