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Statement of Mary Meg McCarthy, Executive Director, National Immigrant Justice Center

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported 368,644 people in fiscal year (FY) 2013 according to statistics released by the Obama administration. The high number of deportations demonstrates a failure of the administration’s 2011 promise to use prosecutorial discretion to consider the individual circumstances of people facing deportation and provide relief for those who are integrated in our communities, have U.S. citizen family members, and pose no threat.

While the number of deportations dipped for the first time since the president took office, it still far exceeds the deportation levels of previous administrations and the capacity of immigration courts. The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) is hopeful that incoming Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson will follow through on his recent statements that ICE should follow its prosecutorial discretion memos and that quotas should not drive decision-making on deportations. This position should extend to the detention system, which held every person deported last year. NIJC encourages Secretary Johnson to reinterpret the detention bed quota to include alternative forms of custody and press Congress to eliminate the quota altogether. Congress must shift taxpayer spending from the deportation apparatus to the justice system.

While the prosecutorial discretion policy in part was intended to reduce court backlogs, the number of pending cases hit a new high of 342,189 in July 2013—a five percent increase from the end of FY 2012. Of the cases pending nationally in September 2012, only seven percent of individuals obtained relief based on prosecutorial discretion. According to ICE’s new data, about 40 percent of people deported had never been convicted of crimes. Many of those with criminal convictions were guilty of a simple traffic violations or status-related offenses such as illegal entry or re-entry. NIJC has counseled hundreds of individuals who faced deportation despite clearly falling under the prosecutorial discretion guidelines; we were able to represent only a small number of individuals with particularly strong cases, and even then routinely met obstacles from immigration officers unwilling to consider discretion.

The U.S. justice system is drowning under the weight of this excessive enforcement.  While Congress spent more than $2 billion to detain immigrants, it only allocated $304 million for immigration judges and critical resources that ensure court cases are processed efficiently and fairly. In 2013, wait times for initial immigration court hearings hit 572 days on average. For people caught up in the system, this means spending months or years in limbo, often while incarcerated, unable to work or support their families. For asylum seekers hoping to obtain protection and help the family members they left behind follow them to safety, it means constant worry that those loved ones may not survive long enough to escape as well, and in many cases, long detention periods that increase trauma. As Americans wait for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation, robust use of prosecutorial discretion and more court resources would help ease the burden families currently bear under a system of rampant detention and deportation.

See NIJC’s updated infographic putting these enforcement numbers in perspective: