WASHINGTON — A month after promising to focus deportations on the most serious criminal immigrants, the Obama administration said Wednesday it has rounded up nearly 3,000 criminals across the country for deportation.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton said agents arrested 2,901 criminal immigrants in the last week alone. Each illegal immigrant arrested, he said, had at least one criminal conviction and more than 1,600 of those people had been convicted of at least one felony, including attempted murder, rape and kidnapping.
The weeklong roundup came just a month after Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that immigration officials would focus enforcement efforts on serious criminals and delay deportation cases for most non-criminal immigrants who don’t pose a threat to public safety or national security.
“This is what we should be doing; this is good law enforcement,” Morton said. “It makes sense to be removing people who are committing crimes who are here illegally first and foremost.”
In an Aug. 18 letter to a group of senators who have pushed for immigration reform, Napolitano said officials from DHS and the Justice Department would review approximately 300,000 deportation cases pending in federal immigration court.
At the time, officials said most non-criminals and those who do not pose a threat to public safety or national security would likely have their cases put on hold indefinitely. Those people would be allowed to stay in the country and apply for a work permit.
Morton said Wednesday the review has not been started.
But agents in the field have been instructed to use discretion in evaluating who should be arrested and put in the system for deportation. In a June memo, Morton said discretion could be used in a variety of cases, including for people with no criminal record and young people brought to the United States illegally as children.
While the focus is on criminals and security threats, some non-criminals may still face deportation because ICE has not suspended enforcement operations for everyone else, Morton said.
“We don’t have the power and are not going to suspend enforcement for an entire class of individuals in a broad way,” Morton said.
DHS has been widely criticized for using fingerprints collected in local jails to identify and deport people arrested for minor traffic offenses and other misdemeanors.
That program, Secure Communities, continues, though a task force charged with recommending changes to the program suggested that it only be used to identify serious criminals. Morton said he will meet with the task force before deciding if any changes should be made to the controversial program.