An immigration agent arrests a fugitive last month. Image courtesy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The controversy surrounding the federal government’s expanding program to identify and deport immigrants with criminal records that reared up in Chicago, issues surrounding an immigrant workforce — legal or otherwise — and the drop in the number of asylum seekers in the last decade were among the big immigration stories last week.

Advisors to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials suggested asking Rahm Emanuel, then White House chief of staff, to intervene to help compel reluctant local officials to embrace the program, according to The New York Times.

Many deported through the program don’t have criminal convictions. The aim of the program, which began in 2008 and is expected to be implemented nationwide by 2013, is to deport dangerous criminals.

An agency contractor named Dan Cadman responded in an internal e-mail last year that the Illinois State Police message to the federal agency to back off was “not good, not good at all!” He wondered if it was “Time perhaps for a full court press?” An ICE spokesman said Cadman’s contract was terminated last month.

(Cadman, by the way, was also a central figure in a 1990s scandal involving one of ICE’s two predecessors, the old Immigration and Naturalization Service. Dubbed “Kromegate,” the affair involved moving immigrants out of a Florida detention center ahead of a congressional visit, which the Justice Department Inspector General investigated and then some. He also was the director of the INS’ National Security Unit at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks.)

An outside statistician has been hired to review the Secure Communities program, working with the Homeland Security Department’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, which investigates such complaints, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In San Francisco, which besides being another sanctuary city, is one of the top 13 California counties that deport high percentages of noncriminal immigrant, the SF Bay Guardian reported. San Francisco had resisted participating in the program.

In Arizona, which last year kicked off the latest campaign of tough-on-enforcement legislation, an attorney started the legal process to literally split the immigration battleground into two distinct states, tentatively naming the southern neighbor Baja Arizona.

Business pressure, pressured
Businesses have been applying political pressure points on state legislatures, saying that immigration-related bills introduced around the country may have a deleterious effect on the states’ economies.

The Obama administration is catching heat from both the left and right over its shift in focusing on employers rather than just on the illegal immigrants who work for them. Workplace audits by federal agents, who seek proof that employees are eligible to work in the country, have driven undocumented workers into the underground economy, The Wall Street Journal reported. In California, one workplace enforcement audit, also known as a silent raid, hit a Sacramento-area nursery during its busiest season.

At a House of Representative hearing, an immigration scholar testified that outsourcers have exploited loopholes in U.S. visa programs to bring in cheap foreign labor to substitute for U.S. workers. Microsoft was the only company in the top five users that had U.S. headquarters. A top federal immigration official said that fraudulent visa petitions had dropped from 21 percent in 2008 to about 7 percent, according to The New York Times.

While the country wrestles with immigration, the economy and jobs, Minnesota manufacturing companies continue to move operations to Mexico, despite that nation’s own economic troubles and bloody battle with drug traffickers.

Enforcement news
In other enforcement news, ICE detained 18 suspected illegal immigrants on a bus pulled over for speeding in Pennsylvania, a dairy farmer was accused of harboring illegal immigrants in upstate New York (here’s another take on the story), and a Turkish immigrant in Massachusetts had his drug possession conviction overturned because his court-appointed attorney didn’t properly inform him that the plea deal could lead to his deportation, the Boston Globe reported.

Undocumented students are not a priority for deportation, said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who later reiterated the Obama administration assertion that the U.S.-Mexico border is more secure than ever before.

Border security
A Somali man in custody since 2008 near San Antonio who later asked for asylum allegedly helped smuggle through Mexico and into Texas potential terrorists whose whereabouts are unknown. The man pleaded guilty last year to making false statements and will be sentenced later this month.

Before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, the Government Accountability Office testified that DHS, while making progress, faces continued challenges in securing both the northern and southwest borders.

The left-leaning Center for American Progress said that opponents of an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws are unrealistic in saying that absolute control of the border is achievable — or even necessary — before reform legislation can be introduced.

The fence as architecture
A UC-Berkeley architecture professor re-envisioned the border fence as architecture as “[o]ur wall is as unsophisticated as a wall built 2,000 years ago,” he said.

Among his ideas are: a “burrito wall” with a food cart so people on either side of the border can share a meal, visit or conduct business; a water distribution system; and a lending library/confessional that also straddles the border to promote learning and spiritual health.

Asylum applications drop

Asylum applications have dropped by nearly 50 percent from 2001, according to the Office of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Refugee Agency. Image courtesy UNHCR

The number of asylum seekers in the west fell by nearly half in the decade, down 42 percent from the peak in 2001, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

The United States still attracts the largest number of asylum claims, with 55,500 requests out of some 359,000 applications in 2010 – one of every six requests — with an increase attributed partly to a rise in Chinese and Mexican applicants. Asylum bids to Canada, meanwhile, plummeted by 30 percent to the lowest level in nearly five years.

Ireland had the lowest approval rate in Europe last year as the country granted asylum to just 25 people.

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Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.