In a recent New York Times article, Nina Bernstein describes a report concerning the National Fugitive Operations Program (run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement), ostensibly aimed at catching immigrant felons with outstanding deportation orders. While the program has received a surge in funding over the past several years, its initial goals have been distorted. Starting with $9 million in 2003, as of 2008 the fugitive operations program received $218 million. Yet despite this major monetary support, the program has significantly altered its declared aims of focusing on “rounding up the most threatening [undocumented immigrants]—criminals and terrorism suspects.” In 2006, immigration officials erased criteria requiring a percentage of those arrested to be fugitives. In 2007, of those arrested under the program, only 9% held criminal records. Even more disturbing, 40% of those picked up were not only non-fugitives—they were non-citizens without outstanding deportation orders. These internal changes demonstrate “the power of administrative memos to significantly alter immigration enforcement policy without any legislative change.”
As Barack Obama begins his presidency and attempts to distinguish himself from the policies of the last eight years, the National Fugitive Operations Program should not go unnoticed. In a new era of professed democracy, transparency, and change, it would be a glaring oversight to fail to reshape the treatment of immigrants within American borders. We are a nation built by those who have traveled from distant lands to carve out a new life. The senses of hope and opportunity that have seduced so many of us during the last few years are the same sentiments that have called out to millions across the globe. Not only does the program erode our nation’s foundation of compassion, its executors defy the bounds legislated for it, transgressing their roles as administrators and acting rather as extralegal enforcers. The funding is excessive and its amount should be reconsidered, though at a minimum its issuance must be made contingent on the program operating within its legislatively imposed limits. To permit the National Fugitive Operations Program to continue functioning as it currently does is neither transparent nor democratic. Actions occurring behind closed doors without the knowledge or approval of the American people should not be tolerated.