Fox News used a misleading report from an anti-immigrant organization to baselessly claim the Obama administration is now releasing immigrants who have been convicted of rape and murder. In fact, those crimes, classified as Level 1 offenses by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), are automatically subject to deportation.
On March 31, the anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies reported that in 2013, ICE released nearly 68,000 immigrants who had been convicted of some type of crime. According to CIS, that number represented 35 percent of all immigrants convicted of a crime that CIS had come into contact with in 2013. CIS did not describe the specific crimes these immigrants had been convicted of but nevertheless concluded that the "release of so many convicted criminals back into U.S. communities, when they could be removed to their home countries, is a large-scale abuse of authority that inevitably leads to public harm."
Fox News seized on the report to repeatedly argue that the Obama administration "is destabilizing the nation by allowing hordes of dangerous illegal aliens to invade the country," as Fox News Radio's Todd Starnes put it.
Fox hosts have since escalated those claims, asserting that immigrants who were released were those convicted of rape and murder, even though the CIS report makes no such claim.
On Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy stated: "That's kind of scary that we released close to 70,000 people who had criminal convictions. I know some of them were drunk driving, but they did include murder in some cases and rape as well. That's not the way it's supposed to work." Guest Jessica Vaughan, CIS' director of policy studies, replied: "Well, ICE has not released all the details on the exact crimes that these people are associated with, but it is concerning that interior immigration enforcement has deteriorated."
Later on America's Newsroom, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs noted that CIS is a "restrictionist advocacy group" "and therefore you have to take their numbers with a grain of salt." But Dobbs went on to push the same wild claim, saying that "some" of the immigrants released were found to be guilty of crimes "running up to rape, murder and far down as taking off."
In fact, any immigrant -- legal or undocumented -- who has been convicted of an aggravated felony such as rape or murder is automatically subject to deportation, without the benefit of a court hearing.
As the Washington Post explained:
Immigrants convicted of such crimes are automatically required to be detained by federal immigration authorities after they're released from criminal custody and can then be summarily deported without a hearing before a judge. Aggravated felons are also ineligible for asylum or reprieve from deportation by a change due to family hardship, and they're prohibited from ever returning to the United States without special permission from the government. (Permanent residents are granted a hearing, but the judge still has limited authority to prevent deportation.)
ICE describes such aggravated felonies as Level 1 offenses and they can include "major drug offenses, national security crimes, and violent crimes such as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and kidnapping."
In a memo outlining the Secure Communities deportation program, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged that immigrants convicted of such crimes were a "priority" for deportation:
ICE is committed to identifying aliens convicted of serious criminal offenses who are subject to removal in all three category levels, with a priority assigned on the basis of risk to individuals convicted of Level 1 offenses. ICE continues to exercise discretion through its field offices in taking enforcement action in cases of aliens convicted of Level 2 and 3 offenses as each situation demands. At no time shall this MOA be construed to limit the discretion of ICE in managing detention resources.
However, as the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse has documented, an "aggravated felony" for purposes of immigration law can include many crimes that "have been interpreted by federal courts to include misdemeanors, even though misdemeanors are generally meant to encompass less serious or dangerous acts than crimes traditionally designated as felonies." An Immigration Policy Center fact-sheet on aggravated felonies shows that the definition "covers more than thirty types of offenses, including simple battery, theft, filing a false tax return, and failing to appear in court."
After analyzing the CIS report, the American Immigration Council wrote:
The report would have us believe that the federal government is knowingly letting tens of thousands of violent foreign-born criminals go free. It's certainly a sensational claim, but it has no basis in reality. CIS distorts the numbers, and stereotypes immigrants -- all in an attempt to cast doubt on the practice of "prosecutorial discretion" by immigration-enforcement agents.
AIC went on to note that the "claim in the CIS report that ICE has simply chosen to 'release' 68,000 'criminal aliens' through the exercise of 'prosecutorial discretion' is inaccurate. Being released by ICE is not the equivalent of being set free. It often means being released with an ankle bracelet or under an order of supervision, or issued a notice to appear in court."
ICE has also disputed the CIS report, noting that in "Fiscal Year 2013 the agency removed 216,000 convicted criminals" and that the "percentage of criminals removed continues to rise." ICE continued: "Nearly 60 percent of ICE's total removals had been previously convicted of a criminal offense, and that number rises to 82 percent for individuals removed from the interior of the US. The removal of criminal individuals is and will remain ICE's highest priority." Indeed, ICE totals from the past few years show that the number of immigrants with Level 1 offenses who were deported has gone from about 3,400 in 2009 to to nearly 29,000 in 2013.
Vaughan, who wrote the CIS report, claimed today that the critics who have denounced her findings "neither detracts from or changes the fundamental truth that ICE is taking a pass on huge numbers of illegal aliens located by ICE officers, including an alarming number of criminal aliens."
Fox News has repeatedly tried to discredit the Obama administration's enforcement record even as data show that 30 percent of all federal convictions in 2012 were for immigration offenses, the second-highest conviction behind drug offenses.