LOS ANGELES — The head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Monday the agency is no longer using arrest quotas in a program aimed at tracking down immigrants who have ignored court orders to leave the country.
John Morton, assistant secretary of homeland security for ICE, told reporters that eliminating the quotas in the program was one of the changes he made since taking office this year.
Morton declined to state how widespread the use of quotas was previously or which quotas he suspended. He said the change would not affect the agency's work to find and arrest immigrants who don't heed their deportation orders.
"I just don't think that a law enforcement program should be based on a hard number that must be met at the end of the day," Morton said. "I just don't think that's a good way to go about it and so we don't have quotas anymore."
Agency records from ICE's fugitive operations program show that beginning in 2004, teams were assigned to arrest at least 125 so-called fugitive immigrants. In 2006, each team's quota was increased to 1,000 fugitive arrests.
Immigrant advocates voiced outrage at the quotas and accused agents of racial profiling to net more arrests. An internal ICE report released earlier this year showed that agents arrested two dozen Latinos at a Maryland convenience store in 2007 after their supervisor told them to boost arrests because they were behind reaching their goal.
ICE's fugitive operations teams made more than 34,000 arrests during the 2008 fiscal year, more than double the number of arrests made two years earlier.
Morton, who spoke with reporters on a two-day visit to Southern California, said the teams would increasingly focus on finding immigrants with criminal backgrounds.
Karen Tumlin, a staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, said a key concern has been agents' practice of arresting undocumented immigrants with no prior contact with law enforcement while out trying to track down criminals.
"Having a quota system really drove a lot of that profiling and inappropriate enforcement," Tumlin said. "It could be a positive sign. It is one of those only time will tell."
Morton also said he expects a relatively new program that lets local law enforcement check arrestees' immigration status eventually could reduce the need to train local officers to run immigration checks in jails.
The program, dubbed "Secure Communities", gives local law enforcement access to an immigration database. That way, when an arrestee's fingerprints are taken, their immigration history is checked along with their criminal background. ICE aims to finish rolling out the program nationwide in 2013.
Immigrant advocates said they worry that both Secure Communities and the jail check program can lead local police to carry out minor arrests with the intent of checking a person's immigration status.
On Monday, ICE reported that 10 people died in the agency's custody whose names were not included on its list of detainee deaths. The omission was discovered after a freedom of information request, the agency reported.
David Shapiro, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project, said the failure to report detainee deaths shows a lack of accountability. The update pushes the total number of detainee deaths to 104.
"This forces us to question even further whether there are still more deaths that somehow have gone unaccounted for," Shapiro said in a statement.
In response to the omission, Morton called for a review of the agency's documents and databases.