Immigration Enforcement Chief Speaks on Security


National security, immigration raids, and the workings of the immigration courts were all under discussion March 5 as Assistant Secretary Julie Myers, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security, spoke at Harvard Law School, hosted by the Society for Law and National Security.

Myers began her remarks by noting that the Department of Homeland Security was celebrating its fifth anniversary, and encouraging students to go into public service for at least part of their careers. She acknowledged that a significant part her audience included those who have opposed ICE’s actions, saying, “If you’re here because you don’t like what ICE does, that’s all the more reason we need you at ICE or another government agency.” Students from the Harvard Immigration Project had distributed a flier earlier in the week with criticisms of many of the agency’s recent actions. Myers also acknowledged that the agency was not perfect, saying “Have I made mistakes? A million of them.”

According to Myers, ICE’s interior enforcement agenda includes priorities like removing aliens with serious criminal records and cracking down on the activities of transnational gangs and smugglers. ICE’s non-immigration priorities include money laundering and drugs and arms dealers. She explained how the government uses immigration court as a tool in its larger law enforcement efforts; in the same way that tax evasion charges have been used to bust organized crime figures, the government often uses immigration or customs charges instead of criminal charges for the same conduct, as the former has a lower burden of proof. “That can make the difference and get a really bad person off the street and back to their country of origin,” said Myers. She gave a number of examples of recent successful ICE cases, including immigrants convicted of terrorist ties and arms dealing. Most ICE cases on arms dealing involve undercover agents, due to the sensitive nature of the investigations.

Myers took questions from the audience that were both friendly and critical. On the question of 287(g) agreements, which authorize local police to perform some federal immigration functions, she disagreed that their expansion was problematic, stressing that ICE is expanding the program slowly and extensively training local police departments.

She explained that there was great pressure on the government to deport aliens with criminal records before they committed other crimes, and that when news of an immigrant with a record committing a serious crime got wide publicity, she always fieled calls from angry citizens and lawmakers. “There are tragedies committed every day by American citizens,” she said, but when there’s a tragedy by an illegal alien, there’s an added sense of, how could you let this happen?”

Another question asked about the aftermath of the immigration raid in New Bedford, MA, which happened a year before, on March 6, 2007, and what, if anything ICE had changed after that raid. Myers defended the operation, saying ICE cooperated with local agencies and did well releasing parents who were sole caregivers, but also said they were “always learning and looking at best practices.”

“One thing you can say is, those parents made bad choices,” she said, referring to the workers at Michael Bianco, Inc., who were detained. She said in the past year the agency tried to focus even more on medical and family concerns in enforcement operations.

Questions dealing with the presidential election or political developments drew reticence from the assistant secretary. She did, however, express a hope that the new president will press for comprehensive immigration reform, which failed last year. “If the people who wanted to come out of the shadows could, we could focus on those who don’t want to,” she said.

On the subject of a proposed border fence with Mexico, Myers said, “Sometimes a physical border is effective, but sometimes it’s not. And for overstays [immigrants who overstayed a legal visa], you can’t build a wall.”

This moderate view was questioned by a student who asked why ICE continued to prioritize large-scale workplace raids if Myers hoped those workers would soon be able to legalize their status. Myers replied that in the absence of immigration reform, she felt like she could not ignore a part of the law, and said that she believed the Swift company raids in Colorado and elsewhere were “righteous” largely because they involved identity theft.

Myers discussed a number of other controversial issues, including recent ICE detention practices, the effects of deporting MS-13 and MS-18 gang members on their home countries, and the possible expansion of “expedited removal” to speed up deportations of certain classes of immigrants. Regarding improving health care in detention, Myers said, “There’s probably more that we can do.”

After thirteen years in government, Myers will be leaving her post for the private sector when the Bush Administration ends this year.

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