ICE Director John Morton is in the Hot Seat on Immigration

The former Virginia prosecutor is in charge of enforcing some of the country’s most fiercely debated policies.

By: Garrett M. Graff

Morton was born in Scotland, the child of a US citizen and a Scot. His policies at ICE have drawn fire from both the right and the left. Photograph by Stephen Voss.

There may not be a job in Washington harder or more thankless than the one John Morton holds.

As director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Morton is the point person for the nation’s immigration enforcement—and the main target for everyone who disagrees with the Obama administration’s approach.

Whether you’re listening to his critics on the right, who think Morton is an apologist for the administration’s back-door amnesty policies, or those on the left, who argue he’s destroying hundreds of thousands of families a year, the conclusion is the same: He’s not first on many Christmas-card lists.

Immigration is perhaps the nation’s most unsettled policy area. On one end of the spectrum, pro-immigrant groups like the National Council of La Raza and administration officials like Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council, are pushing for policies such as the DREAM Act that would allow pathways to citizenship for those here illegally.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators in Alabama and other states are working with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a one-man engine of new anti-immigrant legislation, to make life increasingly uncomfortable for undocumented immigrants; Arizona governor Jan Brewer exchanged heated words with President Obama over their conflicting policies in January; and GOP presidential contenders Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have criticized the President’s policies—and each other’s, arguing over who would take the harder line.

The irony is that President Obama is already implementing the toughest policies in a generation.

Morton himself is no softie. He has deported more immigrants than anyone in US history. Under his leadership, ICE has deported more immigrants in the first three years of the Obama administration than the George W. Bush administration did in its first five.

Thanks in part to years of border-security enhancements begun under Bush, 2011’s number of arrests on the southern border was the lowest since the early 1970s.

Yet how to handle those millions already here—the vast majority of whom are contributing members of society, many with children who are American citizens, millions more than ICE could reasonably be expected to remove?

“I wanted to get a set of priorities that give the government and the taxpayers the most bang for the buck,” he says. “We don’t want it just to be the first 400,000 people we see each year.”

Morton’s argument is that ICE receives enough funding from Congress to remove 400,000 illegal immigrants a year, mere drops in an enormous bucket. So which 400,000 should it be?

“I wanted to get a set of priorities that give the government and the taxpayers the most bang for the buck,” he says. “We don’t want it just to be the first 400,000 people we see each year.”

Morton issued a directive last year that codified a system he has referred to as “prosecutorial discretion,” focusing the agency on removing undocumented immigrants who have criminal records, who have ignored a final order of deportation, or who entered the country recently.

The policy was the result of numerous back-and-forths among Morton, the Department of Homeland Security, and the White House—with the White House pulling left and Morton, the enforcer, pulling right. But ultimately it was Morton’s policy—as well as his name across the top of a now infamous 2011 memo that laid out new rules and launched a review of more than 300,000 pending deportation cases.

“He’s really taking the reins in a way that the other players in the immigration-policy debate at DHS are not,” says Brittney Nystrom, director of policy and legal affairs at the progressive National Immigration Forum. “His name will always be attached [to these policies].”

Unspoken in the memo is a deal with the other 11 million undocumented immigrants: Be productive members of society, don’t cause trouble, and ICE won’t come after you. Be good and we’ll give you time to wait for comprehensive immigration reform and a coherent government policy.

The firestorm was immediate.

“Citizenship is a valuable, scarce commodity. This is a benefit more powerful than anything else the government can give out,” says Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “You’ve got an administration more focused on minting new Democratic voters than enforcing the law. What’s the difference between a chicken in every pot, $10 in your pocket, or citizenship benefits? This is machine-style politics at its worst.”

Some lawmakers say Morton is exceeding the prerogative of the executive branch, providing in essence back-door amnesty without congressional approval.

“It’s terrifying this agency doesn’t see the danger of what it’s doing,” Stein says. “Can you imagine if the FDA said, ‘We don’t have the budget to inspect all these drugs, so we’ll let them go to market anyway’?”

By one measure, “prosecutorial discretion” has been succeeding: Last year, nearly half of the 400,000 people deported by ICE had a criminal conviction, up from a third in 2008.

Morton says he’s making the best of a bad situation: “The agency needs to recognize it operates in a broken system. Immigration reform is very much needed in this country.”

Says Peter Vincent, a law-school classmate who serves as Morton’s principal legal adviser: “At ICE, we’re guaranteed to upset 50 percent of the people 100 percent of the time.”

The bigger challenge for Morton is that immigration is, at most, just half of his job.

ICE was born of the post-9/11 reorganization of the homeland-security apparatus and arguably was the most difficult and complex of the mergers. It combined the investigators from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) with the investigators from Customs, reorganizing two proud agencies with brand names and unique missions into something that had neither.

The merger made ICE, overnight, the nation’s second-largest federal law-enforcement agency—larger by thousands than the better-known Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives—with a portfolio that stretched from immigration to intellectual property to child pornography.

Morton’s predecessor, Julie Myers, a former aide to Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr, was a controversial recess appointee seen as lacking management and law-enforcement experience.

When Morton was nominated in the spring of 2009, morale at ICE was terrible. “It needed a champion—its people needed a champion, its mission needed a champion,” Morton says. “It needed someone to stand up and say we can’t do everything.”

Morton has worked to raise the profile of his agency and navigate two very different cultures. Yet the two halves of ICE—Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which handles intellectual property, human trafficking, and other former Customs roles, and the immigration side, Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO)—continue to maintain separate field offices. All told, there are more than 20,000 ICE employees split among 22 ERO offices and 26 HSI offices as well as posted to 47 foreign countries.

ICE still ranks 222nd out of 241 federal agencies in terms of morale, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s Best Places to Work rankings.

As difficult as his days are, Morton wanted his current job—badly, in fact. Had worked for years to land it. Had contributed $1,000 to the Obama campaign to show he was onboard, even though after a lifetime of public service he wasn’t a big-money donor.

“Lots of people asked me, ‘Are you sure you want this?’ ” Morton says. “I’ve always believed in the underlying mission. ICE was always the right fit for me. Immigration is the story of America, both good and bad. ”

Morton, 45, was born in Scotland, the child of a US citizen and an unnaturalized Scot. He grew up in Rome for three years before his parents—his dad was an Episcopal priest—settled in Washington. He spent his first two years of high school at Loudoun Valley in Purcellville and later graduated from Alexandria’s Episcopal High School, then enrolled at the University of Virginia.

From there it was two years in the Peace Corps. He arrived in a small town in Chad soon after the former French colony’s second civil war and witnessed the overthrow of the government.

“Lots of people asked me, ‘Are you sure you want this?’ ” Morton says. “I’ve always believed in the underlying mission. ICE was always the right fit for me. Immigration is the story of America, both good and bad. ”

In Chad, Morton contracted malaria and came close to death. Passing nuns saved his life with an injection of quinine.

After returning from Africa, he enrolled at UVA law school, where he found a mentor who would reshape his life’s path: David Martin, one of the nation’s leading immigration-law scholars.

Morton’s first job out of law school was as a trial attorney in the immigration courts in New York, a role that forced him to tackle huge caseloads. He was named “rookie of the year” by his division.

Soon after, he was plucked to be special assistant to his former professor when Martin was named the INS’s general counsel. From there, Morton went to the deputy attorney general’s office at the Department of Justice, working closely with Eric Holder.

For the next 12 years, Morton rose through the ranks of the Justice Department, including stints with the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia in Alexandria prosecuting terrorism cases and eventually becoming acting deputy assistant attorney general of the criminal division as the George W. Bush presidency ended.

When Obama came to office, Morton saw his next opportunity: head of ICE. It didn’t hurt that Janet Napolitano, the incoming Secretary of Homeland Security, had also been a student of Martin’s at UVA. Or that the short list to take over the agency was, well, short. Running ICE wasn’t exactly the plummest post in the so-called Plum Book of jobs open for new political appointees.

Amid the challenges of the nomination process—the endless swirl of paperwork, meetings, and background checks—Morton’s personal life was in chaos.

His marriage of eight years to Laura Anderson Smith, a lawyer, was falling apart. Smith sat behind Morton at his Senate confirmation hearing in April 2009, their two young girls beside her, even as the couple was legally separated pending a divorce.

Stepping into the greatest challenge of his career, Morton found himself simultaneously learning the role of a divorced parent. Before his morning briefings, he had to pack lunches. International trips were scheduled around parent/teacher conferences. Says Morton: “I picked an interesting job in which to be a single parent.”

Morton toggles day by day, sometimes hour by hour, between the two roles of ICE.

Testifying before a House subcommittee last fall, he faced withering criticism mixed with scant praise. Morton sat stone-faced as the questions and critiques rained down. His refrain was familiar: “Even though the agency funding sought by the President and appropriated by the Congress is at an all-time high, DHS simply does not have the resources to charge, detain, and remove all of the aliens in the country unlawfully.”

The next day, Morton was across town at the French ambassador’s residence in Kalorama for a ceremony repatriating a stolen Jules Breton painting located by the HSI portion of the agency—the other half of his job, the half that people like and appreciate.

“I am delighted to be here today,” Morton said in an elegant room filled with guests sipping Champagne. And unlike at Hill hearings, it actually seemed as if he meant it. He continued: “These are the days it’s good to be the director of ICE.”

It was the second time in 2011 that he’d been able to return a stolen painting to France—and there would be a third returned in January of this year. As he concluded his remarks, he perhaps inadvertently captured what gets him up each morning: “This has been a good year for the forces of good.”

Yet there’s so much more work to do.

In his 11th-floor office at ICE headquarters, filled with mementos from police agencies around the world—including a bottle of excellent Mexican tequila that ethics rules forbid him from opening—there’s still the sense of an agency on the make. The headquarters is sandwiched between the Southwest DC waterfront and the train tracks leading over the Potomac River. Each passing freight train rattles his windows.

Morton roams the headquarters often, asking questions to suss out how ICE policies work on the streets. “He’s become much more sensitive to the practicalities of enforcement,” Vincent says. “Understanding how it works on the ground has done much to form his overall policy direction.”

His relationship with the rank-and-file of his agency is mixed—younger agents, who know only ICE, appreciate his leadership, whereas legacy INS and Customs agents often are muted in their praise.

One of the unions that represent ICE employees on the ERO side has been bogged down in contract negotiations for years and voted no confidence in Morton a year into his role. Says union head Chris Crane: “He was inheriting an agency with a lot of problems. He’s done nothing to fix those problems. He’s just made them worse.”

In House testimony, Crane said Morton’s “prosecutorial discretion” memo provided “a roller coaster of arrest authority that has changed from month to month, week to week, and at times from day to day.”

Morton knows he has few allies in his daily battle to improve and raise the profile of ICE—but he hopes his successor, whoever he or she may be, whenever he or she takes over, won’t be as lonely as he is.

“I knew what I was getting myself into,” Morton says. “My goal is that each time there are more and more people willing to do this job.”

This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.