While the nation's immigration officers have raided job sites and picked up illegal immigrants across the country in the past year, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants sit in jails, already convicted of crimes.
Yet they often are released back into the community instead of being deported.
This week in Congress, Democrats – with almost no resistance from Republicans – are trying to force the Bush administration to focus more on the criminals and less on the working folk, directing $800 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to make criminal immigrant deportations its top priority.
That means more money to ferret out criminals in jails, for the federal-local 287(g) partnerships that deputize local law enforcement officers as federal immigration cops, and for the fugitive-alien teams that pick up wanted suspects.
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But some of those programs, while focused on criminals, round up noncriminals, as well.
Homeland Security records show, for example, that fugitive immigration teams last year captured nearly six times as many noncriminals as convicted criminals.
Many immigrant advocates also fear that local-federal partnerships such as the 287(g) program are leading to racial profiling in Latino communities.
Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill who is the chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee's homeland security subcommittee, pushed the effort this week. Price is shepherding next year's spending package for the Department of Homeland Security. It passed a key House committee Tuesday and now goes to the House floor.
Capturing criminal illegal immigrants is “one thing everybody agrees on that has to be at the top of the list, and yet they haven't done it,” Price said Tuesday.
Not everyone agrees.
“What he's saying is he doesn't want to enforce our immigration laws except on a narrow group of people,” said Steven Camarota, research director of a Washington think tank that advocates for immigration restrictions.
To ferret out illegal immigrants, Camarota said, the federal government must focus on workers and the employers who hire them.