By Megan Janetsky / Cronkite News
WASHINGTON – The acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement told a House committee Tuesday that while the agency is targeting criminal immigrants as it ramps up enforcement efforts, “no population is off the table” for immigration arrests.
Thomas Homan’s comments to a House Appropriations subcommittee come as ICE has made headlines recently with arrests in courthouses and other public places that he said have left officers unfairly “vilified” for doing the jobs set for them by the president and Congress.
“We’re not doing sweeps, we’re not out looking for illegal aliens … but if we find somebody here in the country illegally, we’re going to put them in front of the immigration judge,” Homan said. “It’s our job and I think it’s right thing to do.”
Committee members agreed that officers have been unfairly criticized for doing their jobs, but some drilled Homan about who is being targeted.
“Are we to set any priorities at all in terms of the danger to the community proposed by certain classes of individuals?” asked Rep. David Pierce, D-North Carolina. “It seems to me you’re saying both things here. You’re saying, ‘Yes, we’re prioritizing those dangerous folks, but by the way, we’re going after everybody.’”
Homan fired back, saying Congress can help by cracking down on sanctuary cities and police agencies that do not detain criminal immigrants for ICE, among other measures.
“If we’re really serious about criminal aliens, making sure we’re getting them off the street, Congress can certainly help me,” Homan said.
The exchange came as Homan defended his proposed fiscal 2018 budget to the committee, along with the heads of the Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection.
President Donald Trump’s budget calls for $7.9 billion in total funding for ICE – a $1.2 billion increase in discretionary funding from this year and an additional $377 million in mandatory fees – that Homan said is “critical” for the agency to do its job next year. Among other goals, the budget includes funds to expand detention centers and to hire 1,000 officers, the first of 10,000 that Trump promised to add to ICE in an executive order he signed shortly after taking office.
Homan said that executive order also reversed policies under President Barack Obama that put 345,000 “fugitive aliens,” or about 65 percent of those dodging deportation orders, out of reach of ICE officers.
As a result, he said, ICE arrests are up 38 percent this year since the same time last year. From the start of the fiscal year through May 15, he said, the agency has removed 144,353 immigrants, more than half of whom had criminal convictions.
Petra Falcon, executive director of the immigration advocacy group Promise Arizona, said the Obama administration policy of setting a priority on arresting criminal immigrants let people in the community know where they stood. Now, she said, there is a feeling of uncertainty that did not used to be there.
“Under this administration, with the priorities completely changed, people don’t know if it’s them or not,” Falcon said. “People don’t know if they’re going to be stopped.”
“Bottom line, everyone is in jeopardy,” said Falcon, adding that many of those arrested now are “people who have been working here for years.”
Outside the hearing room Tuesday, members of the group United We Dream waited to confront committee members over the proposed increase in funding for deportations.
“We are not criminals, undocumented immigrants pay taxes,” said Claudia Quinonez, a United We Dream organizer. “We don’t want our immigrant taxpayer dollars to go to organizations that are actually going to hinder us in the country.”
But in his testimony, Homan said his agency is just doing the job it’s been given.
“If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering, you should be uncomfortable, you should look over your shoulder, and you need to be worried,” he said.
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