Homeland Security officials said Monday they are gathering data to appease U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, after his powerful House committee threatened to hold the agency in contempt of Congress for failing to provide immigration enforcement information.
Smith, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is demanding that the agency release data he said will show that deportable criminal immigrants are being set free. Earlier this month, his committee issued a subpoena that ordered DHS to provide information about the controversial Secure Communities initiative. The program compares the fingerprints of individuals arrested and booked into local jails against a federal database to determine whether they are deportable under current immigration laws.
Smith accused DHS of “stonewalling” and warned that if the request for immigration-enforcement information was not met, he would "seek enforcement of the subpoena to the fullest extent of the law." A House Judiciary staff member who spoke on background said the committee could take action to hold DHS in contempt if the agency does not supply the requested information.
The DHS said it was in the process of gathering the data and cited statistics to debunk the committee’s claims that criminal aliens are being set loose.
“DHS has implemented immigration enforcement priorities that focus limited resources on convicted criminals, repeat immigration law violators, fugitives and recent entrants," said department spokesman Matt Chandler. "Through these priorities, ICE removed a record 216,000 criminal aliens in FY 2011, an 89 percent increase over 2008."
On Nov. 4, the committee demanded DHS turn over the “names, fingerprint identification numbers and alien registration numbers” of immigrants who were arrested between November 2008 and Oct. 21, 2011, but not detained by ICE.
As of last week, the committee said all the agency had provided was a "unique ID" for each arrested immigrant, a date and time for each "encounter" and the national origins of a few hundred detainees. The "unique ID," the committee charged, is nothing more than a number from 1 to 220,955 and doesn't allow the committee to make any determination about the immigrants' criminal histories. Smith has questioned whether President Obama is directly behind the lack of compliance.
“Either DHS officials never planned to comply with the Committee’s information request, despite its manifest reasonableness, justification under the Committee’s oversight jurisdiction and similarity to information provided to the Committee during the Clinton Administration,” Smith wrote Friday in a letter to DHS. “Or DHS’s plans to comply with the request were vetoed by the White House for political reasons – to prevent the American people from learning the damage to public safety caused by ICE’s current policy of allowing the release of criminal aliens onto our streets.”
Smith’s charges came as DHS announced it would begin reviewing some of the estimated 300,000 cases currently pending before immigration judges. The review is part of an overhaul of Secure Communities that the department announced in June aimed at focusing resources on removing serious offenders first.
The agency also announced a training program geared toward teaching law enforcement officers and prosecutors to use their discretion in turning immigrants over to ICE. The program, first reported on by The New York Times, follows a memorandum issued in June by ICE Director John Morton that instructed officials to use “prosecutorial discretion” when issuing a notice of detainer or deciding “whom to detain or release on bond, supervision, personal recognizance, or other conditions.” The criteria include how long the individuals have lived in the country, the education they’ve obtained, their criminal history and whether they have U.S.-citizen relatives.
That June directive led Smith to file legislation called the HALT Act, which would significantly restrict the administration’s immigration-enforcement abilities.
A DHS official who spoke on background said the department has so far diverted 120 hours away from its daily activities to fulfill the committee’s request. The official also said that not all of the arrested immigrants reported to ICE are eligible to be deported. Secure Communities checks fingerprints against all immigration databases, so fingerprints submitted through the system will, in some cases, match against immigrants who are not removable, either due to lawful legal presence or because they have since become naturalized citizens.
While Smith argued DHS was not doing enough to remove criminal immigrants with Secure Communities, a group of Congressional Democrats outraged over the continued use of the program called last week for its termination.
In a letter written by Democratic U.S. Rep. José E. Serrano, D-New York, and signed by 31 other House Democrats — including Reps. Lloyd Doggett of Austin and Ruben Hinojosa of Edinburg — they told Obama the program only served to erode public trust in law enforcement.
“When detained, individuals are not afforded a right to counsel and are often transferred to remote locations for detention, which severely limits their access to resources to help them fight their cases,” the legislators wrote. "This patently unfair system needs to be seriously reformed, not expanded."
Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.