ICE comes up empty in effort to find missing border jumpers

The Biden administration’s attempt to track down catch-and-release illegal immigrants and serve them with court summonses turned into a “complete waste of time,” according to officers who say they were pulled off higher priority cases to chase down “ghosts.”

Out of a universe of more than 30,000 potential targets, officers were able to locate and serve only about 600, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sources.

That means tens of thousands of illegal border crossers remain at large in the country without an official Notice to Appear for their immigration proceedings — and there are no good prospects for tracking them down.

Officers who spoke to The Washington Times said the agency should have known the operation was doomed because the migrants had given bogus addresses to authorities when they were caught at the border. 

Also, the migrants haven’t been in the U.S. long enough to generate phone or utility records that would allow them to be tracked down.

“I haven’t went on one where there was a person at the house where they said they would be,” one West Coast officer said. “It seems like this administration is trying to find busy work to keep us from actually arresting people.”

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“I’ve got child molesters, I’ve got aggravated felons, I’ve got more important people to go after,” said an officer who works the southern part of the country.

“There were plenty of good cases that we’ve had to push to the side because, on a weekly basis, we had to go out and try to do something with these cases,” said an officer who works on the East Coast. “It was basically three months of at least going out weekly when there were plenty of cases that were definitely more of a public safety consideration that we couldn’t work.”

The Washington Times contacted ICE multiple times for this article, but the agency did not comment.

The Times revealed the at-large operation in April. At that time, ICE called it a “law enforcement sensitive” matter but said the migrants targeted counted as enforcement priorities under Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ framework.

Officers counter that the operation was a distraction, leaving them chasing “ghosts” instead of going after the big cases Mr. Mayorkas said he wanted.

“They say they have us focusing on the worst of the worst, but they took us off of these quality cases to do this, which never should have happened in the first place,” the East Coast officer said.

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That “never should have happened” remark referred to the way the migrants were handled at the border.

When illegal immigrants are caught and released, they are usually served with court summonses, known in the field as a Notice to Appear.

But during the initial wave of the Biden border surge last year, the number of migrants caught and released was so overwhelming that Border Patrol agents were instructed not to do the full processing of an NTA and instead issue a Notice to Report.

Issuing an NTA can take 90 minutes to fill out the forms, while issuing an NTR can take just a small fraction of that time. That meant agents could move migrants through the processing more quickly.

Rodney Scott, who was chief of the Border Patrol at the time, said it was a calculated decision designed to get agents back into the field quickly so they could try to detect other illegal crossings.

“We carved out the groups of individuals that the Biden administration had already said were going to be released, and only after we did records checks,” he told The Times.

Mr. Scott said they knew the chance that the migrants would ever be removed from the U.S., whether they were issued NTAs or not, was close to zero, so the balance of risks made it more important to speed through them to get agents back on the line.

“We decided to prioritize national security and having agents on the border,” he said.

An NTA enters a migrant into deportation proceedings. Migrants can be ordered removed by immigration judges if they don’t show up for their hearings.

Those given NTRs are not officially in deportation court proceedings. Instead, an NTR asks them to check in with an ICE office within 60 days and, usually, to collect an NTA.

Tens of thousands have failed to do so.

In communications to Congress, Mr. Mayorkas revealed that from late March to the end of July last year, 104,171 illegal immigrants were caught and released with NTRs. About half had failed to check in.

ICE was then assigned cleanup duty.

The agency tried to send NTAs to the addresses that the migrants reported to border authorities, but in many cases, the addresses were bad. ICE decided to pull its fugitive operations teams off their normal duties and try to clean up the mess by tracking down the absconders in communities.

ICE’s Law Enforcement Support Center, based in Vermont, was roped in to come up with addresses to give to the fugitive teams. The problem, officers said, is that they had little to work with and the migrants haven’t been in the U.S. long enough to develop the kind of electronic trail that would help track them down.

Even when the right street address was included, the apartment number might have been wrong. That left officers with the choice of giving up or knocking on all the doors in a building — which could feed into fears of ICE “raids.”

Of the 600 or so migrants tracked down, some were issued NTAs on the spot. Others were issued ICE’s Form G-56 instructing them to check in at an ICE office.

That meant even more processing time, which meant less time out looking for high-value targets, officers said.

The officers were particularly frustrated at having to play cleanup. If the Department of Homeland Security had been on top of the situation, they said, the migrants would have been served NTAs in the usual way at the border and ICE’s fugitive operations teams never would have been dragged into the matter.

It was particularly galling to officers because, even if they did track down one of the border migrants, they weren’t arresting or detaining them, merely issuing new paperwork, officers said.

“If I wasn’t going after that guy, I could be going after another guy I could potentially be taking into custody or removing,” the West Coast officer told The Times.

It’s not clear what Homeland Security’s next steps are for the tens of thousands of migrants who couldn’t be found. One of the ICE officers said the fugitive teams have been told to expect ongoing operations to try to track down the absconders.