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By W. Gardner Selby December 16, 2011

Rick Perry says the federal government catches and releases non-violent violators of immigration laws

Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a Republican presidential debate that President Barack Obama's administration has fallen short of enforcing immigration laws.

At the ABC News Iowa Republican debate Dec. 10, 2011, Perry said that when he's president, you "will not see a catch-and-release program like this administration has today … where people who are caught who are illegally in this country and because they haven't been caught in a violent situation, they're released … into the general population. That's the problem that we've got in this country."

We’d already started reviewing a similar Perry claim. Stumping in New Hampshire with Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Perry said at a New Hampshire diner Nov. 29, 2011, that "the Obama administration has a catch-and-release policy where nonviolent illegal aliens are released into the general public," ABC News recapped.

"My policy will be to detain and to deport every illegal alien that we apprehend," Perry said, according to an NBC News account. "That is how you stop this. And we'll do it with expedited hearings so that millions of illegal immigrants are not released into the general population until a hearing date's set several weeks or months later, as we have now."

"Catch and release" sure is catchy. We wondered if Perry's statement accurately describes current practices.

Perry’s campaign spokeswoman, Catherine Frazier, offered as backup information an Aug. 18, 2011, entry on the White House blog. The entry by Cecilia Muñoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs, states that for the first time, the Department of Homeland Security has prioritized the removal of illegal immigrants convicted of crimes in the United States. Homeland Security announced that day, the entry says, that officials would be "making sure they are not focusing our resources on deporting people who are low priorities for deportation.

"This includes individuals such as young people who were brought to this country as small children, and who know no other home," the entry says. "It also includes individuals such as military veterans and the spouses of active-duty military personnel. It makes no sense to spend our enforcement resources on these low-priority cases when they could be used with more impact on others, including individuals who have been convicted of serious crimes."

Muñoz added that the government would be reviewing the "current deportation caseload to clear out low-priority cases on a case-by-case basis and make more room to deport people who have been convicted of crimes or pose a security risk. And they will take steps to keep low-priority cases out of the deportation pipeline in the first place."

Her blog entry says such decisions would be based on "common sense guidelines," a phrase that she hyperlinked to a June 17, 2011, memo from the director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Morton, urging agency officials to use discretion in deciding which apprehended violators of immigration law should be removed from the country. Morton’s memo urges that particular care be taken with veterans, long-time legal permanent residents, minors, elderly individuals, pregnant or nursing women and individuals here since childhood, among people, though negative factors also should be weighed, including whether individuals pose a risk to national security, are serious felons or known gang members, or have egregious records of immigration law violations.

Frazier also guided us to mention of a June 2010 memo from Morton, obtained by Judicial Watch, similarly encouraging ICE officials to apply prosecutorial discretion.

From the top, then, it looks like the administration has been focusing on holding and removing illegal immigrants with criminal convictions instead of others, though an attorney for the Migration Policy Institute, which studies the movement of people worldwide, told us that prosecutorial discretion has long been a tool in enforcing immigration laws. Muzaffar Chishti pointed out in an interview that the June 2011 ICE memo is presented as building on previous instructions by officials in five administrations, starting in July 1976, stressing prosecutorial discretion.

In this way, Chishti said, Morton was "reinforcing what has been longstanding policy." He speculated that Morton’s 2011 memo was issued because apprehensions and deportations have surged, straining government resources.

In testimony prepared for an Oct. 12, 2011, House hearing, Morton said ICE is focused on removing people who pose threats to safety, as well as repeat immigration law violators, recent border crossers and fugitives. ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen later told us by email that in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2011, the government removed over 396,000 individuals, 216,000 of them (55 percent) who had  been convicted of a criminal offense. The year before, Chishti told us, 44 percent of nearly 390,000 individuals removed by the United States had a criminal conviction -- up from 33 percent in 2009 and 27 percent in 2008.

Put another way, the figures show that more than 40 percent of the illegal residents removed last year had been convicted of no misdeeds outside of immigration violations.

A twist: Most U.S. deportation cases of late were not built around potential deportees’ criminal convictions, according to a review by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. The clearinghouse said in a Dec. 5, 2011, online post that from July through September 2011, 13.8 percent of individuals in deportation proceedings were targeted based on criminal activities — down from the "already low level of 16.5 percent" in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2010. The share of individuals facing deportation based on criminal activity "has been declining steadily throughout the past year," the clearinghouse said.

ICE’s Christensen called TRAC’s analysis "wildly misleading," saying the immigration agency is not required to bring up an individual’s criminal record, if any, in removal proceedings. She said: "In these cases, an individual's criminal history, while relevant to ICE's decision to seek removal, is largely irrelevant to the legal question of whether the person has a right to remain in the U.S."

Our ruling

Perry’s statement oversimplifies the administration’s focus on detaining and deporting certain violators of immigration law over others. In fact, people removed from the country on Obama’s watch include both individuals convicted of crimes and those with clean records aside from immigration violations. That said, a majority of the removed detainees last year had a criminal conviction and the share of deported individuals separately convicted of crimes has been on the rise.

We rate Perry’s statement Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

ABC News Radio, news article, "Perry Talks Tough on Illegal Immigration, Scores Arpaio Endorsement," Nov. 29, 2011

Email, response to PolitiFact Texas, Gillian Christensen, public affairs officer, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Dec. 12, 2011

Email, response to PolitiFact Texas, Catherine Frazier, Rick Perry presidential campaign, Dec. 13, 2011

NBC News, First Read blog post, "Tough AZ sheriff makes Perry endorsement official," Nov. 29, 2011

Telephone interviews, Muzaffar Chishti, director, Migration Policy Institute office at New York University, Dec. 2 and 13, 2011

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, news release, "ICE Targets Fewer Criminals in Deportation Proceedings," Dec. 5, 2011; report, "Immigration Enforcement Since 9/11: A Reality Check," Sept. 9, 2011

U.S. Department of Justice, memo, John Morton, director, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, "Exercising Prosecutorial Discretion Consistent with the Civil Immigration Enforcement Priorities of the Agency for the Apprehension, Detention, and Removal of Aliens," June 17, 2011

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, statement of John Morton, director, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, before U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement, Oct. 12, 2011

The White House Blog, entry, "Immigration Update: Maximizing Public Safety and Better Focusing Resources," Aug. 18, 2011

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Rick Perry says the federal government catches and releases non-violent violators of immigration laws

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