Published: Jul 27, 2010 2:46 AM EDT
Updated: Jul 26, 2010 11:47 PM EDT

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In a bid to remake the enforcement of federal immigration laws, the Obama administration is deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants and auditing hundreds of businesses that blithely hire undocumented workers.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expects to deport about 400,000 people this fiscal year, nearly 10 percent above the Bush administration's 2008 total and 25 percent more than were deported in 2007. The pace of company audits has roughly quadrupled since President George W. Bush's final year in office.

The effort is part of President Obama's larger project "to make our national laws actually work," as he put it in a speech this month at American University. Partly designed to entice Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform, the mission is proving difficult and politically perilous.

Obama is drawing flak from those who contend the administration is weak on border security and from those who are disappointed he has not done more to fulfill his campaign promise to help the country's estimated 11 million illegal residents. Trying to thread a needle, the president contends enforcement -- including the deployment of fresh troops to the Mexico border -- is a necessary but insufficient solution.

A June 30 memorandum from ICE director John Morton instructed officers to focus their "principal attention" on felons and repeat lawbreakers. The policy, influenced by a series of sometimes-heated White House meetings, also targets repeat border crossers and declares that parents caring for children or the infirm should be detained only in unusual cases.

"We're trying to put our money where our mouth is," Morton said in an interview, describing the goal as a "rational" immigration policy. "You've got to have aggressive enforcement against criminal offenders. You have to have a secure border. You have to have some integrity in the system."

Morton said the 400,000 people expected to be deported this year -- either physically removed or allowed to leave on their own power -- represent the maximum the overburdened processing, detention and immigration court system can handle.

The Obama administration has been moving away from using work-site raids to target employers. Just 765 undocumented workers have been arrested at their jobs this fiscal year, compared with 5,100 in 2008, according to Department of Homeland Security figures. Instead, officers have increased employer audits, studying the employee documentation of 2,875 companies suspected of hiring illegal workers and assessing $6.4 million in fines.

On the ground, a program known as Secure Communities uses the fingerprints of people in custody for other reasons to identify deportable immigrants. Morton predicts it will "overhaul the face of immigration." The administration has expanded the system to 437 jails and prisons from 14 and aims to extend it to "every law enforcement jurisdiction" by 2013.

The Secure Communities project has identified 240,000 illegal immigrants convicted of crimes, according to DHS figures. Of those, about 30,000 have been deported, including 8,600 convicted of what the agency calls "the most egregious offenses."
Neither side satisfied

Criticism has been swift and sure.

While the administration focuses on some illegal immigrants with criminal records, others are allowed to remain free, creating a "sense of impunity. As long as they keep their heads down, they're in the clear. That's no way of enforcing immigration law," said Mark Krikorian, a supporter of stricter policies with the Center for Immigration Studies.

"Even the ones who haven't committed murder or rape or drug offenses, all of them have committed federal felonies," Krikorian said. He favors employer audits, but also the roundups that Obama has largely abandoned.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) similarly believes the administration is showing "apathy toward robust immigration enforcement." He said at a House hearing in March that the approach is nothing more than "selective amnesty."

Others, meanwhile, complain that enforcers continue to target otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants, splitting families and harming businesses.

"They've done a lot to start turning the ship in a more strategic and rational direction. It's hard to say how successful they've been," said Marshall Fitz, a specialist at the Center for American Progress. "Just because you change policies at the top or reprioritize your enforcement agenda doesn't mean that on the ground things have changed very much."

Obama heard that message in a closed-door White House meeting with immigration advocates in March and was taken aback, according to participants. They said he was surprised by evidence that thousands of ordinary illegal immigrants continue to be targeted and deported, often for minor violations, despite the official focus on criminals.

The discussion was "vigorous," said a White House official who was present. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "What he said was: 'We will look at what we are doing. And where we can make changes, we will make them.' The intensity of the conversation, which was already underway, increased as a result of that meeting."

The National Council of La Raza's Clarissa Martinez, who attended the meeting, said: "The gap between the intent and the reality is very, very wide. The president had thought more progress had been made."

Martinez said the federal government is "outsourcing" enforcement to local police, state troopers and deputy sheriffs, opening the way to abuses.

Sarahi Uribe agrees. A National Day Laborer Organizing Network staffer, she contends federal policy has created "a huge dragnet, and it's structural. Basically, it's anyone they can get their hands on."
Focus on crime

Nearly 50 percent of the people who have been deported from the United States this budget year have a criminal conviction, from driving without a license and DUI to major felonies, ICE's Morton said. That represents an increase of more than 36,000 over the same period in 2009, which showed a rise of 22,000 over 2008. "Occasionally, you will hear criticism that our criminal alien efforts are focused around people with cracked tailpipes and speeding tickets. That's simply false," Morton said.

A DHS spokesman said, however, that the agency has no breakdown of the crimes, which makes advocates suspicious.

"It has been a very frustrating experience working with ICE in terms of getting any data on the breakdown," said American Civil Liberties Union legislative counsel Joanne Lin, who has participated in what she called "heated" White House meetings on enforcement. While the government pledges to focus on criminal immigrants, Lin said, the question is this: Which ones?

Morton's June 30 memorandum set priorities for the capture, detention and removal of illegal immigrants. With the federal system facing a limit on how many people it can deport each year, he wrote, "principal attention" must go to people convicted of felonies or at least three misdemeanors punishable by jail time.

In descending order of importance, the memo cites people convicted of a misdemeanor, those caught near the border and those who have failed to obey deportation orders.

"Nothing in this memorandum should be construed to prohibit or discourage the apprehension, detention or removal of other aliens unlawfully in the United States," Morton wrote, but such efforts should not "displace or disrupt" the pursuit of bigger targets.

In an underlined section, Morton listed illegal immigrants who should not be placed in detention except in "extraordinary circumstances." They include people who are pregnant, nursing or seriously ill. Also included are primary caretakers of children or the infirm and people "whose detention is otherwise not in the public interest."

"We're very upfront about what our priorities are," Morton said. "We make no bones about it."