Pursue criminal aliens, not workers, Congress urges administration

WASHINGTON — While the nation's immigration cops have raided job sites and picked up illegal aliens across the country in the past year, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants sit in jails, already convicted of crimes. Yet they often are released back into the community instead of being deported.

This week in Congress, Democrats — with almost no resistance from Republicans — are trying to force the Bush administration to focus more on the criminals and less on the working folk, directing $800 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to make criminal alien deportations its top priority.

That means more money to ferret out criminals in jails, for the federal-local 287(g) partnerships that deputize local law enforcement officers as federal immigration cops, and for the fugitive alien teams that pick up wanted suspects.

But some of those programs, while focused on criminals, round up non-criminals, as well.

Homeland Security records show, for example, that fugitive alien teams last year captured nearly six times as many non-criminals as they did convicted criminals.

Many immigrant advocates also fear that local-federal partnerships such as the 287(g) program are leading to racial profiling in Latino communities.

Rep. David Price, D-N.C., the chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee's homeland security subcommittee, pushed the effort this week. Price is shepherding next year's spending package for the Department of Homeland Security. It passed a key House committee Tuesday and now goes to the House floor.

Capturing criminal illegal aliens is "one thing everybody agrees on that has to be at the top of the list, and yet they haven't done it," Price said in an interview Tuesday.

Not everyone agrees.

"What he's saying is he doesn't want to enforce our immigration laws except on a narrow group of people," said Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates for immigration restrictions. "He's saying he doesn't really want the law enforced."

To ferret out illegal immigrants, Camarota said, the federal government must focus on workers and the employers who hire them.

That happened last year.

Federal immigration agents increased their workplace arrests of non-criminals by 816 percent in 2007 over 2003, scooping up 4,077 undocumented immigrants who had no criminal records, according to numbers the agency provided to the House Appropriations Committee.

Many of those jailed and deported left behind U.S.-born children, a reality that's been borne out in other raids and mortified immigrant advocacy groups.

In the same period, deportations of criminal aliens increased 16 percent, Price said Tuesday.

On Tuesday, few Republicans challenged Price's recommendations. A spokeswoman for Reps. Jerry Lewis of California and Hal Rogers of Kentucky, the top Republicans on the Appropriations Committee and the Homeland Security subcommittee respectively, said they believe that a "balance must be struck" among all the enforcement options.

Still, the ranking Republicans support the priorities laid out in the bill, said the spokeswoman, Jennifer Hing.

Camarota said Democrats and Republicans are trying to straddle a line that helps needy employers while avoiding the moral uneasiness of deporting family breadwinners.

"Together, they can agree that they don't want anyone to upset the apple cart, but they just don't want it to look that way," Camarota said. "It's bad. If you want the law enforced, this is not good news."