Paul Nitze: Turning the wrong corner on immigration |

Paul Nitze: Turning the wrong corner on immigration

Over the last eight years, and particularly since 2003, Congress and the Bush administration have poured federal money into immigration enforcement. Whether or not you think that money has been wisely spent, the results are plain to see. Immigration detainers and subsequent deportations have shot way up, nearly doubling since President Bush started his first term.

In the absence of any comprehensive immigration reform package, the new enforcement tactics have been sold to the American public as a beefed-up, incremental response to the problem. The new measures were made politically palatable to most Americans by targeting two areas: detention of criminal fugitives who are here illegally, and stepped-up border enforcement. But a recent article in The New York Times shows we are in the process of taking a very wrong turn on detentions.

That article, by a reporter named Nina Bernstein, lays out how an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) effort called the National Fugitive Operations Program has shifted gears since 2006. As it worked its way through huge grants from Congress, totaling $625 million over five years, the program stopped focusing on criminals and started going after aliens with no criminal records, who are generally a lot easier to apprehend.

ICE enforcement teams stationed around the country started out with manageable detention quotas, and a mandate to go after fugitive criminals. Beginning in 2006, detention quotas exploded, to the tune of 1,000 aliens per team, and the mandate that teams target fugitives was dropped. Predictably, the percent of detainees with criminal records fell off a cliff, down to 9 percent in 2007. Collateral detentions, meaning aliens who weren’t targeted and had no outstanding deportation order, jumped to 40 percent.

These changes break the implicit contract in place when these programs were sold to Congress and the American public. The fact that, for years, aliens could commit crimes and be released on bond or summons with no immigration consequences was a source of justifiable outrage to many Americans, myself included. In some cases aliens served jail or prison sentences and were released without being deported, simply because there was zero coordination between federal and local authorities.

How can we get the median voter to support a path to citizenship if we’re not targeting the least law-abiding aliens for removal? This is particularly true in an era when we have no technological excuse for lack of coordination. Similarly, I’m less squeamish than some Democrats about increased border enforcement, including border fencing.

Border fencing has all sorts of bad collateral consequences, like the destruction of cross-border community ties, ecological damage, and a spike in deaths among those trying to cross over. It’s hard to display the Statute of Liberty on one side of our public face and show a triple-ply, 20-foot fence on the other. But the fence has also turned out to be pretty effective in cutting down on illegal border crossings, particularly at certain sections of the border where enforcement used to be toothless.

On the other hand, targeting non-fugitives for apprehension is another kettle of fish entirely. Fugitives number a half-million aliens out of about 12 million people in the country illegally. Once you start targeting the other 11.5 million on a piecemeal basis, outside the scope of any comprehensive reform effort, you open Pandora’s Box and break the implicit contract that’s been in place the last few years.

There is no patch of our social fabric into which illegal immigrants are not woven. Illegal immigrants don’t simply work and live in this country ” they also own property; buy health, auto and life insurance; pay taxes; run businesses; serve in the armed forces; and take out mortgages and credit cards.

When federal and local law enforcement efforts regularly target non-fugitive aliens, tears open up in that fabric. To take one example that’s close to home, prosecuting crimes committed by aliens becomes much harder. No victim of domestic violence who’s in the country illegally is going to show up to court if she thinks she’ll be detained when she steps inside the courthouse. More likely than not, she won’t even the report the crime.

We don’t need to look outside our state to see just how misguided some of these efforts are. Ken Buck, district attorney for Weld County, has come under well-deserved fire for using criminal law enforcement as a tool to target illegal aliens living in Greeley. Calling Greeley a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, Buck has expressed frustration with what he believes to be insufficient federal enforcement, and has tried to slap criminal charges on as many aliens in Weld County as he can find.

In particular, Buck has settled on misuse of Social Security numbers as his weapon of choice in fighting illegal immigration. This is because many aliens use fake or stolen numbers to get jobs. There are very good reasons we outlaw misuse of Social Security numbers, identity theft being just one of them, but Buck’s approach is backwards. State and local prosecution should look to staunch criminal behavior first, and address immigration consequences only collaterally.

We now have a new team in the White House, and among their long laundry list of tasks is addressing our immigration policy. I am not crossing my fingers that a comprehensive reform bill is on the immediate horizon. But a check on ICE enforcement efforts that target non-fugitive aliens is a much easier task, and one the Obama administration should address right away.

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