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Despite priorities, only 1/3 of immigration holds focused on convicted criminals

Despite announced shifts in deportation priorities by the White House late last year, new data shows that in April fewer than one-third of the detainer requests sent to local police agencies by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement were for immigrants convicted of a crime. 

In a report issued Aug. 28 by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, immigration officials issued 7,993 detainers in April to dozens of police agencies, asking them to hold immigrants for up to 48 hours after their scheduled release so ICE agents can take them into custody. 

Of the nearly 8,000 detainers issued, only 1,217 were issued for immigrants convicted of an aggravated felony. 

And, nearly the same number of people were issued a detainer because they had a conviction for a misdemeanor or petty offense, according to TRAC, a nonpartisan research project supported by Syracuse University.

The remainder, or 68 percent, had "no criminal conviction of any type," when ICE issued a detainer, TRAC said. 

This "contrasts sharply," TRAC said with the new enforcement paradigm issued by Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson last November. 

In a memo issued to the directors of ICE, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Johnson outlined new priorities for the apprehension, detention and removal of immigrants in the United States focused on priorities set by national security, border security, and public safety. 

Immigrants who are considered Priority 1 are a target for ICE detainers and includes members of "criminal street gangs," and those who may "pose a danger to national security." 

However, those in Priority 2 can also be a target for ICE detainers. This includes people convicted of multiple misdemeanor offenses relating to their immigration status, or those convicted of "significant misdemeanors," which can include drug distribution, driving under the influence, and domestic violence. 

People in Priority 3 are those who have a final order of removal issued after January 2014 and are not eligible for asylum or other forms of relief, Johnson said. 

Additionally, Johnson also sent out a memo that ended the agency's Bush-era program, known as Secure Communities. The program, Johnson said, had attracted a "great deal of criticism" and was "widely misunderstood" and "embroiled in litigation." 

Johnson noted that federal courts had rejected the use of federal detainers under Secure Communities. This includes an Oregon federal judge who ruled in April 2014 that an immigration hold violated her Constitutional rights. 

Instead, Johnson ordered immigration officials to use the Priority Enforcement Program, which requires local law enforcement to simply notify ICE that an immigrant is about to be released from custody. However, agencies are still required to collect fingerprint data during booking and send that information to federal officials. 

TRAC notes that in October 2014, just prior to the November shift in priorities, ICE issued 11,355 detainers to local law enforcement, or 30 percent more than were issued in April 2015. 

The number of immigration detainers has been dropping steadily since March 2011, when the agency sent out nearly 28,000 immigration detainers. 

"ICE makes custody determinations on case-by-case basis with a priority for detention of serious criminal offenders and other individuals who pose a significant threat to public safety," said Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe, a spokeswoman with the agency. 

The agency, she said is focused on "smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States." 

In a recent review of ICE detention facilities, 96 percent of those held were considered either Priority 1 or Priority 2, Pitts O'Keefe said. 

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However, immigrants who held by local law enforcement under immigration holds may not be sent to detention facilities maintained by ICE. Instead, some immigrants may be released on bond while their case moves through the court system while others may be eligible for prosecutorial discretion from an immigration judge. 

In Arizona, ICE put out 661 immigration detainers in April, and more than half focused on people who did not have a criminal conviction. 

In Pima County, among 28 ICE detainers issued that month, only 10 were focused on three priorities for removal. 

This fits with complaints issued by immigration advocates, who said that in at least three dozen cases, ICE officials had ignored the priority tiers and pursued people otherwise eligible for discretion. 

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