[Source – Houston Chronicle]
Immigration agents in southeast Texas removed the highest percentage of illegal immigrants with criminal records in the nation during the recent fiscal year, reporting that nearly 8 in 10 people removed had a conviction other than illegal entry.
Top Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials announced record-setting national and local statistics on immigration enforcement Wednesday, highlighting a sharp increase in the number of “criminal aliens” removed last year. The total number of illegal immigrants removed nationally during the 2010 fiscal year topped 392,000, and more than half — some 195,000 — had at least one conviction other than illegal entry on their record, ICE officials reported.
The Houston field office, which covers the southeastern portion of the state, removed 21,646 illegal immigrants, including 17,014 with criminal records during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. In the 2009 fiscal year, agents in southeast Texas removed 13,662 illegal immigrants with criminal convictions — the previous record.
Obama administration officials, who have faced sharp criticism on immigration from Republicans, touted the record-setting numbers as proof that the Department of Homeland Security is committed to securing the Southwest border and deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records.
ICE Director John Morton said at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday that the agency is committed to “tough law enforcement that protects the safety and security of the American people.”
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano credited the Secure Communities program, which debuted in Harris County in the fall of 2008, with helping to identify the record-setting number of removals of people with criminal records. The program, which has been implemented in all 254 Texas counties, automatically checks the immigration history of all suspects booked into jail and prison, notifying ICE officials of anyone with an immigration record.
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia said jailers have filed the paperwork to detain more than 20,000 suspected illegal immigrants since the county signed on in the fall of 2008 for Secure Communities and ICE’s more controversial 287(g) program, which trains local jailers to help identify illegal immigrants.
“We are finding individuals … that didn’t come here to make a better life for themselves,” Garcia said. “They came here to continue their criminal careers, and that’s not what we’re going to support.”
But immigrant advocates said ICE’s partnerships with local law enforcement agencies are also sweeping up illegal immigrants with no criminal history – or minor convictions including misdemeanors – for removal.
Of the 195,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, more than 64,000 were classified by ICE as “Level 1” offenders, meaning they were convicted of “aggravated felonies,” which includes serious crimes such as murder and rape.
The remaining 131,000 were convicted of other crimes, ranging from felonies to misdemeanors.
Brittney Nystrom, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Immigration Forum in Washington said ICE should be commended for trying to target serious criminals but said the agency has a ways to go.
“ICE has made a lot of statements about how they’re prioritizing their enforcement dollars,” Nystrom said. “When we see numbers like this, it raises the question of whether they are doing everything they can to truly prioritize.”