Last week, Service Employee International Union members and immigrant rights advocates gathered in front of federal immigration offices in Oakland and took out their cell phones. In unison, they dialed the Department of Homeland Security public mailbox line to lodge complaints about Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s enforcement activities.
SEIU Spokeswoman Hilda Delgado said the point of the protests—which were held in a handful of U.S. cities last week, including San Jose—was to call for comprehensive immigration reform. The SEIU has been a leading critic of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s worksite enforcement tactics, including I-9 audits, which the union says have resulted in worker firings.
Delgado said the actions were also in response to media reports over the past few weeks about ICE’s practices, including the revelation that a top ICE officer was mandating deportation quotas.
Immigration is always a contentious topic. But the agency in charge of immigration enforcement has drawn an unusual amount of criticism from both sides in recent weeks. Here's a rundown of key events:
* March 27: The Washington Post published a leaked internal memo, authored by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s head of detention and removal operations, urging field officers to boost immigration enforcement activity against non-criminal immigrants in order to meet a quota of 400,000 deportations this year. This was troubling to immigrant rights advocates, since the Obama administration had previously pledged to focus on deporting dangerous criminals. Later that day, ICE Assistant Secretary John T. Morton disavowed the memo and said it had been withdrawn. “We are strongly committed to carrying out our priorities to remove serious criminal offenders first and we definitively do not set quotas," Morton wrote in a statement.
* March 30: The social justice advocacy group Texas Appleseed released a report suggesting immigrants with mental illness are not receiving adequate care or due process in ICE detention.
* March 31: The New York Times revealed that more than 30 Haitian earthquake survivors who were brought to the U.S. on American military planes were languishing in immigration detention centers. Immigration officials released all but two of the Haitian detainees the day after the story was published, according to the Times.
* April 2: The Department of Homeland Security Inspector General released a report critical of the agency's 287(g) program, which grants local police departments the authority to enforce federal immigration law. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio helped make the program famous by aggressively arresting undocumented immigrants until federal authorities scaled back the terms of their 287(g) agreement with the Sheriff last fall. According to the Inspector General’s report, ICE has not adequately overseen the program, and so far the initiative has failed to target serious criminals or adequately protect immigrants’ civil liberties.
In response to the various reports, some advocates have called for Morton’s ouster as head of ICE. Deepak Bhargava, one of the organizers of the March 21 immigrant rights march in Washington, D.C. and the director of Center for Community Change said in a press conference, “This agency has gone rogue and is operating in clear opposition to the direction President Obama has set.”
Congressman Luis Guttierez (D-IL), an outspoken immigration supporter wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and ICE’s John Morton stating, “I am astounded by how inconsistent these reports are with your stated priorities, and am left to wonder what your true priorities are, or to what degree agency directors and agents in the field actually understand and/or follow your stated priorities.”
Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the political spectrum, former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo voiced his own discontent with the nation’s leadership on immigration policy. But Tancredo’s complaint is that top immigration authorities are not doing enough enforcement.
According to Tancredo, lax border policies cost a southern Arizona rancher his life last week. Some, like Tancredo, suspect the rancher was shot by an undocumented immigrant who might have had links to a drug-smuggling operation. In a video message, Tancredo called for Janet Napolitano to resign as Secretary of Homeland Security for not doing more to tighten security at the southern border.
Revealing how differently the two poles of the immigration debate see things, Tancredo said: “She lies about border security in order to push the Obama agenda—amnesty for 15 to 30 million illegal aliens presently in this country.”
Though some analysts have said that any hope of Congress taking on immigration reform legislation this year is dead, the debate is clearly very much alive.
Jude Joffe-Block is a student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
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