WASHINGTON — House lawmakers grilled the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Tuesday, saying her agency had released more than 30,000 immigrants with criminal records in 2014 while failing to act against other immigrants its officers stopped.
In her first appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, ICE Director Sarah Saldaña faced two hours of often hostile questioning over the releases and over the administration’s policy of focusing enforcement efforts on immigrants who pose the greatest threat to the U.S.
“The agency’s released thousands of criminal aliens convicted of offenses involving dangerous drugs, assault and domestic violence,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the committee.
He pointed to numbers from ICE that showed it had released 30,558 people in 2014 who had been of more than 79,000 crimes, from homicides to traffic offenses. That followed the release of 36,000 detainees with criminal convictions in fiscal 2013, Goodlatte said.
But Saldaña said the release of immigrants in detention was often something handled by the courts, not her agency. And she said her agency has done a better job of removing immigrants with criminal convictions: 85 percent of those who were deported from the interior of the U.S. in 2014 were convicted criminals, she said, up from 67 percent in fiscal 2011 and 38 percent in fiscal 2008.
She said ICE removed 315,943 people in 2014 – of those 213,719 were caught trying to enter the country or shortly after they crossed the border, but 102,224 were apprehended in the interior.
“This is no accident,” she said in her opening remarks. She attributed the increasing number of criminals caught and deported to a “change in ICE’s strategic focus” and a “continued commitment to focusing on identifying, arresting and removing convicted criminals and other priority individuals.”
That policy of prioritizing enforcement efforts is part of the White House’s initiative that calls for deporting “felons, not families.”
Saldaña pulled out a card that she said all ICE agents carry listing the priorities for enforcement. The Department of Homeland Security has set enforcement priorities from 1 to 3, with priority 1 including serious crimes and threats to national security, for example, down to down to simple immigration violations as priority 3.
She said the card is just part of the “substantial training” officers have received on the new prioritization policies. The cards help “give an officer flexibility in making a decision whether someone fits within the priorities and should not be removed.”
That policy did not sit well with Republicans on the committee, who accused Saldaña of keeping her officers from doing their jobs.
Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, tried to pin the blame back on the White House, saying President Barack Obama’s executive actions on immigration have put Saldaña and her agency “in a very difficult position and I say that sincerely, I think he has.”
Other Republicans at the hearing were less conciliatory, particularly when Saldaña would not provide the answers they wanted.
“It bothers me tremendously when, as the director of ICE, (you) come in here and tell us one of your number one priorities, you basically don’t have a clue whether you can do it … or how many you’re releasing,” said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., when asking about the number of gang members ICE might have arrested and released.
But Democrats defended the priority enforcement, with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., saying people who commit serious crimes should be deported but that ICE has no business removing someone with a broken taillight who is taking his child to the hospital.
Others defended the agency.
“I find them to be commendable and to be concerned about the security of this nation,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said of ICE officers. “I think that is very important.”