Misplaced priorities at DHS [Editorial]

Gov. Martin O'Malley is right to demand answers from the federal Department of Homeland Security as to why the agency is deporting from Maryland disproportionate numbers of undocumented immigrants without criminal records. DHS is supposed to focus on violent offenders and people involved in the drug trade. Instead it appears to be targeting many people who have committed minor offenses or no crime at all. That's a waste of resources that could be better spent on going after people who are truly dangerous.

As the Sun's John Fritze reported on Sunday, more than 40 percent of the immigrants deported from Maryland under the federal Secure Communities program since 2009 had no previous criminal record. That's twice the national average and more than three times the rate of states like Texas. It's a mystery why that should be, considering it violates the department's own policy guidelines as well as the Obama administration's repeated assurances that the program does not target individuals and families who obey the law and stay out of trouble.

It simply makes no sense for DHS to be singling out people who pose no danger to public safety or national security. Mr. Fritze reports that many of them are hard-working people who have jobs and who are raising families and contributing to their communities. Under any other circumstances they would be just the sort of people likely to be eligible to apply for legal residency. That can't happen unless Congress gets its act together to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. The policies Maryland adopted in the meantime — such as allowing immigrants to obtain driver's licenses or pay in-state college tuition under certain circumstances — recognize the complex reality of our broken immigration system, but the federal government's actions here do not.

Federal officials say many of the people they apprehend and deport are undocumented immigrants who have entered the country illegally before and therefore qualify as repeat offenders, even though they have no previous criminal record and may only have been guilty of a routine traffic violation or misdemeanor. DHS considers prosecuting such cases to have the same priority as going after people with known gang affiliations, drunken-driving arrests and those who are fugitives from justice. But that flies in the face of the agency's own stated preference for focusing first on dangerous criminals.

Mr. O'Malley has written to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson to ask why Maryland residents who haven't committed any crime are being detained and deported. He deserves a prompt and thorough answer. This is a question of basic fairness as well as of immigration policy, and we would expect DHS to be forthcoming about its motivations, given the close ties Mr. O'Malley has cultivated with the Obama administration. The way the laws are being enforced now has broken up families and deprived children of the support of their parents in an arbitrary fashion that benefits no one.

Mr. O'Malley is also considering supporting legislation in the General Assembly this year that would make it harder for immigration officials to detain undocumented immigrants in local lockups unless they have committed a serious crime. Because deportation proceedings often begin with a routine traffic stop that eventually leads to the discovery of a person's undocumented status, federal officers use local jails to detain suspects until they are deported. It's unclear exactly how effective a state law would be in limiting that process, but lawmakers should certainly consider any proposed legislation aimed at making sure immigration enforcement focuses on those who are truly dangerous.

This is not about picking a fight with the federal government but about recognizing that the limited resources of immigration enforcement officials should not be focused on arbitrarily uprooting people who have homes, jobs and families here. DHS has a real and compelling interest in seeing that violent criminals and terrorists are quickly identified and deported. It should concentrate its efforts on apprehending them before worrying too much about ordinary people who are just trying to make a living.

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