SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Last month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement made a significant policy change. They increased the number of agents responsible for finding and deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records by nearly 25 percent. Now, the agency says it wants to remove offenders who pose the greatest threat to public safety or national security.
We'll talk with John Morton, the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, about that in a moment. The agency's shift in focus under his leadership has provoked some strong reactions from immigrant communities and their advocates. Mary Meg McCarthy is executive director of Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago and she believes the increased enforcement effort may backfire.
MARY MEG MCCARTHY: It creates an environment of fear on behalf of the immigrant community so individuals who would normally go to the police, either to report a crime or as witnesses or victims of a crime, are now frightened to do so and often do not come forward, which undermines the safety of our communities.
SIMON: As the Federal Immigration Agency puts this new plan into practice, there were reports in the press that officials set quotas for their agents, mandating a specific of monthly immigration arrests. Now, when we spoke with director Morton earlier this week, he denied the claim and explained how he measures the policy's effectiveness.
JOHN MORTON: The way we measure their success is obviously to track their efforts in the form of removals from the United States, but we don't assign a given number of individuals to arrest. We don't have an overall quota. What I do expect to see as a result of our efforts is that the number of serious criminal offenders we identify and remove increases, relative to the overall population of people that we remove.
SIMON: Help us understand how you assess and rank the seriousness of their criminal misbehavior and the threat that that represents.
MORTON: We have some guidance in this area from the statute, that is Congress has laid out a series of criminal offenses that it views as aggravated felonies - murder, drug offenses, rape, serious frauds - what we call level one offenders. Level two are other felons or people who have a history of repeated violations. And level three is everybody else, typically people with a single misdemeanor conviction, say for DUI or for a minor drug offense.
SIMON: And can you tell us how many of those, either deported or flagged for deportation are that category three?
MORTON: Yeah. So last year, we removed about 216, 000 criminal offenders from the United States. About 60 percent of those people are level one or two offenders. Now, it's important to remember, on average, if you have 100 criminal offenders, 20 of them will be convicted for a felony, 80 will be convicted for a misdemeanor.
We remove felons at a much higher rate than 20 percent.
SIMON: Now, we spoke with Mary Meg McCarthy, who's executive director of Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago, and she says that they often see cases of illegal immigrants who have no criminal record being deported or people who were just stopped for minor infractions like a broken taillight.
MCCARTHY: Sometime it's something as simple as a broken taillight, right? - they may be stopped for, and the next thing you know, they're facing deportation from the United States after living here for years.
SIMON: You wouldn't dispute that, necessarily.
MORTON: The immigration laws of the United States provide that people can be removed simply for being here unlawfully. And obviously, our job is to enforce the law. And while we do remove people without criminal convictions, the scenario that she lays out of people who've been here for a very, very long period of time and have no criminal record and are removed from the United States is, in fact, quite rare.
Those people are not our priority and we don't seek to remove them in large numbers.
SIMON: More than a million people have been deported over the last three years, which is an all-time high. Why introduce a plan like this, Mr. Morton, when reports say that illegal immigration across the border, the U.S./Mexico border, is waning because of the economy?
MORTON: Well, remember, what is driving that all-time high? It's the removal of criminal offenders. And when you consider that, you know, large metropolitan city, for example, the recidivism rate can approach 50 percent. That means, you know, for every two people that we remove, that's one crime that won't happen in that community over the next three years. That's good law enforcement. It's good immigration enforcement. It's good policy.
SIMON: Mr. Morton, do you have any concern that this program to root out more illegal immigrants sows any distrust between police and citizens at a time when the police are asking citizens to come forward, be vigilant and share information?
MORTON: First, I would disagree with your characterization that it is a program to root out illegal immigrants. It's an initiative to identify and remove more serious criminal offenders. With that said, I don't believe that that kind of a focus breaks down community policing. I'm obviously aware of the criticism, but I'll tell you we haven't seen that. On the contrary, we've seen where we go into a community and work side by side with law enforcement to identify and remove offenders, there is a strong and positive effect on public safety in that community.
SIMON: And Mr. Morton, finally, what do you say to those people who think that this program must be politically driven?
MORTON: I reject that assertion. Listen, we are trying to make the best of a difficult set of circumstances. We have come up with what we believe to be a rational set of priorities that focus on criminal offenders, border security and people who game the system. And at the same time, advocate for long-term immigration reform that deals in a rational way with the large number of people who've lived here for a very, very long period of time and for whom removal, as a class, really isn't the answer.
SIMON: John Morton, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, speaking from his office in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much, Mr. Morton.
MORTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.