GOP’s new immigration weapon

Conservatives have found a new weapon in their fight against the Obama administration over immigration: thousands of immigrants convicted of crimes.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said repeatedly that Republicans are reluctant to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws because they don't trust the administration to implement them.

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The new report from the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), a conservative group pushing to reduce even legal immigration, fed into Boehner’s argument about an untrustworthy administration.

The CIS report found that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released more than 36,000 immigrants, with almost 88,000 criminal convictions among them, during deportation screenings last year. 

Its author, the center’s Jessica M. Vaughan, said the “shocking” figures “could further shake public faith in the effectiveness of current immigration enforcement policies.”

Republicans have been quick to pounce.

“Regardless of one's position on the larger immigration reform question, it's incredibly alarming that tens of thousands of convicted criminal aliens — including hundreds of murderers, kidnappers, and rapists — who were processed for deportation are being freed into our communities by the Obama administration,” Reps. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman and former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, respectively, said this week in a statement. 

“The truth is that most could be detained by immigration enforcement authorities if the administration had the will to do so,” the Republicans added. “These criminals should be locked up, not roaming our streets.”

The DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch has not disputed the report, which was based on ICE data obtained by the anti-immigration group. But the agency is defending the releases, arguing that convicted criminals enter ICE's deportation process only after they've served their sentences; that many of those released were subject to restrictions like GPS monitoring, telephone monitoring, supervision, or bond; and that previous court rulings require that the agency release many others.

“The releases required by court decisions account for a disproportionate number of the serious crimes listed in the report,” ICE said in a statement.

“Others, typically those with less serious offenses, were released as a discretionary matter after career law enforcement officers made a judgment regarding the priority of holding the individual, given ICE’s resources, and prioritizing the detention and removal of individuals who pose a risk to public safety or national security.”

Immigrant rights advocates such as the American Immigration Council (AIC) are pushing back. It blasted the CIS's conclusions this week, characterizing the report as “anti-immigrant fear-mongering at its lowest.”

The group also criticized CIS for lumping violent offenses, such as homicide, with lesser crimes, such as tax fraud, and suggested the conservative group was padding its numbers for political ends. Nearly 33,000 of the convictions cited in the report, for instance, were for traffic violations, the AIC noted, though 15,635 of those were for driving while intoxicated.

The group also defended the “fundamental legal protections” afforded immigrant residents. “And one of those protections is that individuals cannot be held indefinitely without cause,” it wrote in its analysis.

“[I]s CIS arguing for mandatory, permanent detention of immigrants with no opportunity to have the facts and circumstances of their case reviewed?” the group asked.

The back and forth highlights the partisan divide that's accompanied the immigration reform debate under President Obama.

Republicans like Goodlatte and Smith say the central issue is one of enforcement.

They accuse the Obama administration of being too lax when it comes to applying existing laws, and they’re leaning on that argument to justify their reluctance to bring an immigration bill to the floor.

“The biggest impediment we have moving immigration reform is that the American people don't trust the president to enforce or implement the law that we may or may not pass,” Boehner said last month.

Obama and other immigration reform supporters counter that only comprehensive changes, like those passed by the Senate last summer, can fix the holes in they system, including enforcement deficiencies. As long as Boehner and the House Republicans continue to block such reforms, they say, the system will remain dysfunctional. 

“This system is not fair,” Obama said Tuesday, addressing a group of law enforcement workers at the White House. “It’s not fair to workers; it's not fair to businesses who are trying to do the right thing; it’s not fair to law enforcement agencies that are already stretched thin.”

A Republican Judiciary Committee aide said this week that panel leaders have scheduled no separate hearings based on the CIS report, but the committee will hold a DHS oversight hearing later this month, where Republicans “expect Secretary [Jeh] Johnson to provide answers” surrounding the releases.

This story was updated at 2:10 p.m.