ICE's Morton on Washington Journal

By Jerry Kammer and Jerry Kammer on August 8, 2010

A response from Immigration and Customs Enforcement chief John Morton to a young caller from Tustin, Calif., on the Sunday edition of C-SPAN's Washington Journal encapsulated the difficulty of his job, and the conflicts that bedevil federal enforcement.

The caller, named Chris, said he had been brought to the United States in 1995, when he was four years old. He asked about his chances of becoming a citizen. C-SPAN host Peter Slen amplified the issue, asking, "Here's somebody who came over at four years old. He didn't really have a choice. But he's kind of grown up to be an American. What's his status in ICE’s view?"

Morton said the call demonstrated "why immigration is a tough issue and why good people on both sides of the aisle can have different views of what the right answer is."

He continued: "Everybody realizes that we need to reform the system. The devil's in the details and how you're going to go about it.…We've got to have some sort of balanced reform that gets us back to very meaningful enforcement, where the rules do matter and there's integrity in the system and at the same time we have a very firm but fair means of people who've been here a very long time to gain some sort of path to citizenship."

Of course, the reforms favored by the Obama administration would provide a path to citizenship not just for "those who've been here a very long time." The reforms would almost certainly offer legal status to anyone who was in the country on the day a new reform bill is introduced in Congress. And in reality, given the enormous difficulty of evaluating millions of applications and the inevitability of massive fraud, they would offer legal status to people who came into the country long after the bill is introduced. Firmness wouldn't have a chance. Fairness would make the system a sucker.

Morton's response to Chris revealed the conflicts inherent in his job. He made it clear that while ICE's priorities call for targeting illegal immigrants who are also serious criminals, his duty to the law means that he can't give Chris a pass.

Continuing a response that featured a series of twists and turns, Morton said: "For someone like the caller, we aren't going to ignore the law. We don't turn a blind eye. That we can't do. We're sworn to enforce the law. But we do make judgments every day about whether or not we put people into detention, whether or not we agree that they have some relief under the law, whether or not their particular case deserves some act of administrative grace or deferred enforcement. Typically we will act on a case-by-case basis. But we avoid any sort of blanket determinations. At the end of the day we have to enforce the law. Even in the case of someone like Chris, we just can't turn blind eye to an entire class. But we do exercise good judgment and good discretion."

In other words, Chris, stay out of trouble and you'll probably be fine. But no guarantees unless Congress passes reforms which, in reality, will respond not only to tough cases like yours but to the aspirations of many who have yet to enter the U.S. illegally. In immigration, promises of reform are often terribly deformed.