John T. Morton, as an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, directs U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the primary agency for investigations, detention and deportation operations inside the country, away from the border. The agency has 19,000 employees and an annual budget exceeding $5 billion. On any given day, there are about 30,000 immigrants in ICE custody. Previously, Morton served as a trial attorney in what used to be the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as a U.S. attorney and in the Justice Department's criminal division. ProPublica spoke with Morton on Aug. 27.
Q. Why does ICE want to prioritize some undocumented immigrants over others?
A: Congress provides enough money to deport a little less than 400,000 people and in an era of limited resources, who should those 400,000 be? My perspective is those 400,000 people shouldn't be the first 400,000 people in the door but rather 400,000 people that reflect some considered government enforcement policy that is based on a rational set of objectives and priorities.
Q. What are ICE's priorities?
A: There are three priorities. The first priority is criminal offenders. The second priority is recent border entrants. Those are all non-criminals. Visa overstays or people caught at the border or people caught after initially entering -- those are all non-criminals. And the third category is people who game the system. People with outstanding final orders (of deportation). People who are deported and come back. People who obtain their status by fraud. Those can be both criminals and non-criminals.
Q. What about those people who are light offenders or non-offenders who've lived here a long time?
A. If your question is what about the people who are not priorities for the agency, the answer is we're going to continue to enforce the law. We're not giving broad classes of people amnesty or a pass from law enforcement. But we are recognizing that, hey, we only have a limited ability to enforce the law in terms of resources and when we go about saying, 'How should we target enforcement resources?', we're going to focus on three areas overall. And those are criminal offenders, recent entrants and people who game the system.
Q. Why didn't you ask for more detention money?
A. Our overall budget at the agency is at an all-time high. We are detaining large numbers of people. Our detention budget has not gone down. In fact, it's grown tremendously over the past couple of years... (Because of enormous deficits) there are hard choices that have to be wrestled with every day and ICE continues to be funded at a very high level by Congress.