News & Politics

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.

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.”

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