Trump wants to ramp up deportations, but ICE probably won’t be able to keep up

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, hampered by poor organization and an overworked staff, will have trouble keeping up with the Trump administration’s plans to ramp up deportations of people in the country illegally, government inspectors have concluded.

ICE has “overwhelming caseloads,” its records are “likely inaccurate” and its deportation policies and procedures “are outdated and unclear,” said a report released Thursday by the inspector general of the Homeland Security Department.

"ICE is almost certainly not deporting all the aliens who could be deported and will likely not be able to keep up with the growing number of deportable aliens,” the 19-page report concludes.

The harsh assessment is the latest dash of cold reality for Trump, who was swept into Washington promising vastly tougher enforcement of immigration laws, including more removals, thousands more Border Patrol agents and deportation officers, and construction of a formidable wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Congress faces a looming deadline to fund the federal government after members return next week, and the proposed wall and other new border security measures probably won’t get anything extra in this round of spending. Trump had asked Congress to provide an additional $5 billion this year.

A vast surge of new hiring is also problematic. Although Trump has signed an executive order directing the Border Patrol and ICE to hire 15,000 more agents and officers to boost enforcement, that goal will be nearly impossible to achieve anytime soon.

An internal memo in February from Kevin McAleenan, acting director of Customs and Border Protection, revealed that Border Patrol was able to vet and hire only about 40 agents a month last year despite aggressive efforts to streamline the hiring process.

Reports this year that Customs and Border Patrol might stop using polygraph tests, intended to ferret out unqualified agents, drew a storm of criticism. So did the reason: Two out of three new applicants had failed the lie detector.

The agency first required polygraph tests for prospective employees in 2012 after an Obama-era hiring surge led to a sharp increase in agents getting charged or arrested for bribery, drug smuggling and other crimes on or near the border.

Moreover, the Border Patrol — the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency — has more than 2,000 jobs empty even before a Trump-led hiring surge. The force fell below 20,000 agents this year for the first time since 2009, when Obama came to office.

Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly said Sunday that Customs and Border Protection would continue to use the polygraph as a hiring tool, although he added that the agency was considering changes to make the process less “arduous.”

Kelly, a retired Marine general, took the offensive in a speech at George Washington University on Tuesday, blaming poor morale in his department on what he called “pointless bureaucracy” and “disrespect and contempt” from political leaders.

“If lawmakers do not like the laws that we enforce…. then they should have the courage and the skill to change those laws,” he said. “Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.”

Under the Trump administration, the Border Patrol and ICE have ramped up arrests of people in the country illegally —– 21,362 from mid-January to mid-March, compared with about 16,100 for the same period last year.

Removals by ICE reached a peak of 409,000 a year under President Obama before plummeting to 235,000 in 2015 and 240,000 last year.

In the first three months of this year, ICE has deported 54,936 people, a rate that appears to put the Trump administration on track to remove fewer people than the Obama administration.

On Thursday, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions boasted during a visit to El Paso of making progress, saying the number of people trying to cross the border illegally had fallen to the lowest in 17 years.

“For those that still seek to violate our laws and enter the country illegally, let me be very clear: Don’t come. When you are caught, you will be detained, adjudicated and deported,” he said.

Sessions said he had ordered each of the 94 U.S. attorneys offices to make criminal immigration enforcement a priority, and said each now has a “border security coordinator” who is personally responsible for overseeing immigration enforcement.

After taking office, Sessions ordered nearly every U.S. attorney in the country to resign. He has yet to nominate any replacements to the Senate, which must confirm each one, so it’s unclear when federal prosecutors will start to change their focus.

Sessions also said he had streamlined the hiring of immigration judges, and that the Justice Department would add 50 such judges this year and 75 next year to help adjudicate asylum claims, deportation orders and other disputes.

That will help but hardly solve the problem. There are now 250 immigration judges, and a backlog of 542,000 cases in immigration courts.

Moreover, the latest report from the inspector general’s office at Homeland Security said ICE agents, who are supposed to identify, detain and deport people in the country illegally, are ill-equipped to monitor those on their caseloads.

ICE tries to keep track of about 2.2 million foreigners who are not in jail, including more than 368,000 convicted criminals, the report said. Some officers have more than 10,000 cases, the report said, criticizing agency officials for not managing the problem.

“Although many ICE deportation officers … reported overwhelming caseloads and difficulty fulfilling their responsibilities, ICE does not collect and analyze data” that could be used to ease the pressure.

In one office, according to the report, officers complained that they had to manage so many thousands of cases that they couldn’t keep track of some migrants who had been flagged as risks to national security.

The report faulted ICE for insufficient training and failing to issue “up-to-date, comprehensive and accessible” guidelines on deportation. Resolving the failures, it said, “may require significant time and resources.”

“These management deficiencies and unresolved obstacles make it difficult for ICE to deport aliens expeditiously,” it said.

The inspector general’s office launched the review last year after Jean Jacques, a Haitian national, was released from ICE custody in 2015 even though he had been convicted of attempted murder and given a final order of deportation. While on the street, he killed another man.

ICE said it agreed with the report’s recommendations and that it was prioritizing deportation efforts to focus on those who pose the greatest threats.

The agency “remains committed to implementing safeguards to ensure that its deportation operations are executed in a way that promotes public safety and protects our communities,” Jennifer D. Elzea, an acting press secretary, said Thursday.

Randy Capps, research director at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the Trump administration may have promised more than it can deliver given the systemic problems.

“Sooner or later, they are going to have to narrow down [deportation priorities] or the system is going to be overwhelmed,” he said. “That’s certainly what the Obama administration found. There’s a certain size past which the system is very hard to manage efficiently.”

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Twitter: @jtanfani

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