"Gang bangers." That's how President Barack Obama, while speaking at a November presidential debate, characterized the criminal immigrants who have been deported during his administration.
A recent news report, however, shows that immigration officials floated ideas last year aimed at buoying deportations stats by focusing on minor criminals.
Drawing on interviews and internal emails, USA Today's Brad Heath found that federal immigration officials suggested tactics that included "trolling state driver's license records for information about foreign-born applicants, dispatching U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to traffic safety checkpoints conducted by police departments, and processing more illegal immigrants who had been booked into jails for low-level offenses."
Heath links to a series of emails that show immigration officials searching for ways to meet deportations goals for the year. David Venturella, who oversaw ICE's field operations at the time, wrote in an agency email about keeping the stats high. "There is a lot of concern that criminal removals will fall below not only target but possibly lower than last year's output," he wrote.
Gillian Christensen, a spokeswoman for ICE, told USA Today that the agency "does not have quotas." She added that ICE sets "annual performance goals" that "reflect the agency's commitment to using the limited resources provided by Congress."
The Obama administration touts the record number of deportations under the president's watch, as well as a record number of criminal deportations. But whether the crimes that lead to deportation are serious or not is unclear. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has yet to release a detailed look at criminal deportations, spelling out exactly what crimes lead to a person being removed from the country.
In a set of yearly statistics published by the department, deportations are lumped together in broad categories. One category, "dangerous drugs," for example, could hypothetically include both those deported for a felony drug trafficking charge and those deported for a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge.
In September, ABC/Univision raised questions about the criminal deportation stats with David Burnham, the co-director of Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), an organization that gathers government data.
"The Obama administration claims that more of the people they're deporting have been convicted of a criminal violation, although our data says that may not be true," he said. "What they mean by a criminal violation is someone arrested bicycling on the sidewalk; really they've defined everything as criminal. And they're using that to get rid of people."
While it's unclear whether immigration officials adopted the tactics laid out in the email, the article cites David Venturella saying that some administration aides appeared to think producing higher criminal deportation numbers would help their careers. ICE spokeswoman Christensen told ABC/Univision that "few of the contemplated steps were ever pursued."
A memo obtained by USA Today mentions a proposal to comb driver's license databases in North Carolina for applicants who were denied licenses because they were unable to prove residency. Such a search "woud provide a significant foreign-born target base" that could be vetted to find those with prior criminal convictions, the memo said. An ICE official told ABC/Univision in an email that the proposal was never enacted.
The emails featured in the USA Today report were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was investigating allegations of racial profiling at immigration checkpoints in North Carolina.
Raul Pinto, a staff attorney with the ACLU of North Carolina, found the information worrisome.
"They thought that promotions were tied to those numbers," Pinto said. "So there really is an incentive for field officers to arrest as many people as possible and increase the deportation numbers by using questionable tactics."
This article was updated on Feb. 15, 2013, to reflect comment from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.