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Immigration official says agents will no longer have quotas

August 17, 2009 |  3:53 pm

The head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced today that he has ended quotas on a controversial program designed to go after illegal immigrants who have ignored deportation orders and that he planned to make more changes to the program soon.

John Morton, who took over as head of the federal agency in May, said during a meeting with reporters in Los Angeles that the program needs to do what it was created to do -- target absconders who have already had their day in court.

“The fugitive operations program needs to focus first and foremost on people who have knowingly flouted an immigration removal order and within that category obviously we will focus first on criminals,” he said.

Beginning in 2003, the agency dispatched teams around the country to arrest and deport immigrants with criminal records and outstanding deportation orders. During widely publicized sweeps, armed agents showed up at homes and apartment buildings and arrested tens of thousands of immigrants.

Immigrant rights groups criticized the early morning raids, saying they divided families and resulted in the arrests of many who had no criminal records or deportation orders.

A report by the Migration Policy Institute this year showed that 73% of the nearly 97,000 people arrested by those teams between 2003 and early 2008 did not have criminal records. The report also showed that in 2006, the agency stopped requiring that two-thirds of those arrested be criminals and allowed the teams to include nonfugitives in their tally.

That same year, the teams were expected to increase their annual arrests from 125 to 1,000, the report said.

Morton said Monday that there is nothing wrong with targets but that hard quotas don’t make sense.

“I just don’t think that a law enforcement program should be based on a hard number that must be met,” he said. "I just don't think that’s a good way to go about it. So we don’t have quotas anymore.”

Morton said, however, that he would continue enforcing the law against immigrants who have fought their cases and lost.

“It is important that the system have integrity,” he said. “I am not signaling in any way that we are not going to enforce the law against noncriminal fugitives.”

There are 104 fugitive operation teams, up from 8 when the program started. The immigration agency received $226 million for the program this year, up from $9 million in 2003.

-- Anna Gorman