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updated: 11/1/2010 11:18 AM

An enforcer's thankless task

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If you think you have a thankless job, just be thankful you're not in John Morton's shoes.

Morton is the director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is his responsibility to round up and deport as many illegal immigrants as possible.

Much to the chagrin of immigrant activists, Morton is good at what he does. From October 2009 through last month, ICE deported 392,000 illegal immigrants a record number. More than half had been convicted of criminal offenses. ICE has also gone after employers who hire illegal immigrants and imposed more than $50 million in fines during the last two years.

You would think that the close-the-border crowd would be pleased as punch. They're not. From what you hear on cable TV and right-wing talk radio, they give Morton a failing grade.

Why? Because there are still illegal immigrants in the United States and more on the way. That's true. And the sun still comes up in the morning. There are some things you just can't stop.

Such as a father who is trying to feed his family by landing a job in the United States that pays him 10 times what he could make in Mexico and who is willing to take the risk of illegally crossing the border. If you do stop him the first time, he'll try again.

Yet, some on the far right are actually suggesting that the head of ICE is as incredible as it sounds soft on illegal immigration. That drumbeat got louder a few months ago when Morton issued a memorandum urging immigration officials to cancel the deportations of thousands of illegal immigrants who had active applications in the system to become legal residents, such as individuals married to U.S. citizens.

During his recent visit to San Diego, I asked Morton about the change in policy and the thinking behind it.

"When you start removing people who have been here for 25 years," he said, "it isn't so simple. There is a whole life wrapped up in this person, much of it lawful and positive like the fact that they raised kids here. This is someone's parent, grandparent. We have to ask, 'Is removal the only remedy?' No. And it might not be the best remedy in all cases. As a career prosecutor, I believe in enforcing the law. But I also believe there are multiple ways of doing that, and that it has to be done with the maximum amount of discretion and common sense."

Still, the change in policy angered some rank-and-file agents, and the union representing them issued a vote of "no confidence" in Morton's leadership,

I wondered what Morton made of the criticism he's getting.

"Some people have positions that are so hardened," he said, "that the facts don't move them."

Here's a fact: Americans are still addicted to illegal immigrant labor particularly around the house. And still, we hear that the only reason we have illegal immigrants in the United States is because the federal government isn't enforcing the law.

Morton thinks that argument oversimplifies the problem.

"Enforcement alone isn't a long-term solution," he said. "It's part of the solution, but not the whole thing. What we need is for serious people in this government to grapple with this issue and find a lasting solution."

Serious people, huh? That does not include Rep. Steve King, and Iowa Republican, who will likely head a House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration should Republicans regain the majority in Congress. In a recent interview with Politico, King pledged to interrogate Morton along with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Border Patrol Chief Michael Fisher because, he claims, these officials are "not simply doing their job."

It's time to pull that broken record and tell the truth that ICE can't make a dent in the problem because every time it deports one illegal immigrant, the American people hire three more. And the situation only gets worse. It's the simple arithmetic of the immigration debate.

Although it must be maddening for Morton to be blamed for a problem he didn't create, he has the right attitude.

"I don't know what else I can do," he said, "other than keep doing my job."

Keep doing your job, sir. We need you just where you are. And we need more like you.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is

2010, The Washington Post Writers Group

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