Emails track officials’ focus on finding more criminal immigrants

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Concerned about falling short of congressional deportation targets, federal immigration officials last year beefed up efforts to remove thousands more illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.

Internal emails demonstrate how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement looked to communities in the Carolinas and Georgia, which have had some of the fastest-growing illegal immigrant populations in the country, in an almost desperate attempt to boost their numbers.

“Please implement your initiatives and reallocate all available resources,” David Venturella, who then led ICE field operations, wrote in an April 2012 email to the agency’s Southeast office in Atlanta. His email was attached to a wide-ranging proposal for increasing deportations, which tallied suggestions on how agents in various cities could add to the number of immigrants picked up for removal.

The email exchanges among officials are pleading in nature while emphasizing the need to meet removal targets. They illustrate how aggressively ICE leadership has focused on meeting removal targets that have annually broken records for the number of deportations, which the White House uses to tout its focus on criminal illegal immigrants.

“The only performance measure that will count this fiscal year is the criminal alien removal target,” Venturella wrote.

The proposed plan, running eight pages and approved by Washington headquarters, included agents working more traffic checkpoints, working weekends in Charlotte, N.C.-area jails, vetting denied driver’s license renewal applications in Raleigh, N.C., pressuring district attorneys to seek convictions of illegal immigrants and adding fugitive operations teams in Columbia, S.C., and Macon, Ga..

Critics, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, charged that the tactics demonstrate a “quota” system that “breeds violations of constitutional rights” and promotes racial profiling.

“You’re basically setting up a dragnet to capture undocumented immigrants, and it’s a complete deviation of the federal priorities,” said Raul Pinto, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in North Carolina, which first obtained the emails.

The Obama administration announced in 2011 that it would refocus its deportation efforts on more dangerous illegal immigrants and away from minor offenders who posed no threat to public safety.

Vincent Picard, an ICE spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday that the agency prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and those who previously have been removed from the United States.

He said the agency must submit annual performance goals as part of the budgeting process.

“ICE does not have quotas,” he said.

The documents obtained by the ACLU recalled that Charlotte fugitive operations teams participated in a 2007 traffic checkpoint in Mecklenburg County that “netted multiple criminal arrests.”

North Carolina communities have had a close relationship with federal immigration officials, often serving as an early adopter of federal projects such as 287g and Secure Community, both of which link federal and local law enforcement by identifying suspected illegal immigrants who have been arrested.

According to the emails, headquarters last year directed agents to implement the plan, which recommended more traffic checkpoints in the state but instructed ICE agents “not be at the checkpoint itself so this would not appear to be an ICE organized checkpoint.”

The documents also state that the Charlotte agents were prepared to work weekends at local jails in order to identify criminal aliens arrested who normally would be released before agents returned to work on Monday.

“This could net approximately 50-100 additional criminal arrests or more, based on frequency,” the plan states.

In Raleigh, immigration officials suggested vetting gangs known to have high foreign-born memberships, such as MS-13. Probation records for foreign-born offenders should be reviewed, according to the proposal. It also noted that legislative changes in 2006 made it harder for illegal immigrants in North Carolina to get driver’s licenses. It suggested vetting denied license renewals for potential criminal illegal immigrants.

“Cooperating with DMV to identify all denied license renewal applications (due to lacking proof of residency) would provide a significant foreign-born target base which could be vetted further to identify those with prior criminal convictions,” the plan stated.

Headquarters also approved adding fugitive operations teams in Columbia and Macon.

“We believe that there are a significant number of criminal alien fugitive and re-entry targets in the Columbia, South Carolina area,” the plan stated. ” … We currently lack the manpower to give this area the attention it deserves.”

Ron Woodard, who leads the enforcement advocacy group N.C. Listen, welcomed the increased enforcement methods but questioned the motivations, noting the Obama administration has been cutting enforcement for the past several years.

“You can’t have, in my humble opinion, a government in which we obey the laws we like and sort of don’t obey the laws we don’t like,” he said.

Critics charge that methods such as traffic stops and reviewing applications for driver’s licenses don’t reflect the priorities of targeting dangerous criminals.

“They’re casting a net and scooping up everyone in it,” said Rafael Prieto Zartha, an editor and columnist for Que Pasa-Mi Gente, a Spanish-language newspaper in Charlotte. “They’re lobbying prosecutors to convict more undocumented immigrants.”

The American Civil Liberties Union obtained the emails under the Freedom of Information Act as part of an investigation into the May 2012 traffic checkpoint near Asheville, N.C., in which immigration agents arrested 15 immigrants, including many for minor convictions. The documents were first published by USA Today.

It’s unclear how many of these activities proposed in the emails were implemented and how many arrests they yielded. ICE officials said that not all programs detailed in the eight-page plan were implemented, including working with Division of Motor Vehicles officials to review North Carolina driver’s licenses applications.

ICE did end up meeting and surpassing its goals for removal of criminal illegal immigrants. The United States deported a record 225,390 convicted criminal illegal immigrants in fiscal 2012, exceeding its target of 210,000.