WASHINGTON — In an aggressive effort to boost deportations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has begun to increase by nearly 25 percent the number of agents tasked with finding and deporting illegal immigrants with criminal records, pulling 150 officers from desks and backroom jobs to add extra fugitive search teams around the country.
The plan was launched when the number of deportations slumped after several years of growth, partly due to the drop in illegal immigration along the Southwest border. But critics, including some inside ICE, denounced the effort as politically inspired to help President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.
The move, which began without public notice May 14, calls for increasing the number of fugitive operations teams to 129 from 104. Each team has been given a goal of arresting 50 suspects per month, according to documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times/Tribune Washington Bureau, although ICE officials insisted Friday that no quotas were set for the teams.
An early draft of the plan says ICE is "experiencing a shortfall in criminal removals for the fiscal year" and called for using 300 Border Patrol agents, dressed in ICE uniforms, to close the gap. The plan was scaled back to 150 ICE officers after objections were raised by union organizers for the Border Patrol.
The fugitive teams were instructed for the first time this month to focus chiefly on finding and deporting illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors, multiple immigration violations, or having used fraudulent documents, and not on broader categories of illegal immigrants.
In a telephone interview Friday, ICE director John Morton defended the program as "the best way to use our limited resources" against those who pose the greatest threat to public safety.
Obama administration officials say they forcibly removed a record number of people last year, some 396,906 in all, including 216,698 criminal immigrants, or about 55 percent of the total.
ICE has removed 127,044 criminal illegal immigrants this fiscal year, officials said. That is behind last year's rate by approximately 12,000, or 9 percent.