A top national border security official said Thursday his agency is doing all it can to deport illegal immigrants with the resources Congress has provided.
John Morton, director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the cash now provided is enough to round up only about 400,000 people a year. That is against what he said are 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the country -- other estimates are closer to 12 million -- and more crossing the border every day.
Morton, in Phoenix to publicize a special effort this week to round up criminal aliens, said the $600 million in border security funding approved this week by Congress will help. That includes money for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents, 250 new officers for Customs and Border Protection at ports of entry and 250 new ICE personnel including special agents and intelligence analysts.
He said President Obama is expected to sign the legislation next week.
But Morton said the ultimate answer has to be "comprehensive immigration reform.'' And that, he said, has to include a way for those who have been in this country for some period of time, albeit illegally, to stay.
Morton said, though, that does not amount to amnesty for those who broke the law by crossing the border illegally or overstaying their entrance visas.
His position has made him the target of rank-and-file employees within his own agency.
In June, the representatives from the union which includes about 7,000 ICE employees cast a unanimous "vote of no confidence'' in Morton and Phyllis Coven, an assistant ICE director. Among the charges is that senior ICE leadership "dedicates more time to campaigning for immigration reform aimed at large-scale amnesty than advising the American public and federal lawmakers on the severity of the illegal immigration problem.''
Thursday's press conference was to detail how ICE coordinated a special effort which resulted in the arrest of more than 60 criminal aliens and immigration fugitives. The three-day push is the sixth of its type in the country.
And he said his agency is opening a new office in Casa Grande with seven agents.
But Morton specifically detailed that during a "typical week'' ICE removes 1,500 illegal immigrants, including 500 who are criminals. There also are five arrests on charges of human smuggling, investigations of three "drop houses,'' inspections of 30 the records of 30 employers and find more than 50 people working in this state unlawfully.
The press conference comes amid criticism from Republicans that the Obama administration is doing a poor job of both guarding the border and rounding up those already in this country illegally. Morton said that is not borne out by data showing fewer people being apprehended trying to cross the border illegally while the number of federal agents working along the border is at "an all-time high.''
"And we're about to send more people there,'' he said, referring to that $600 million supplemental appropriation, with the resources aimed at the Southwest border.
"We're about enforcing the law within the resources Congress gives us,'' Morton said. He said that, at current funding, that provides enough to round up and deport only about 400,000 people a year.
What that means, Morton said, is concentrating the efforts on finding the most dangerous.
But the ultimate answer, he said, is a total change in immigration laws.
"Strong, sensible enforcement is a critical part of the solution,'' he continued. "But it's not the only part.''
What that means, Morton explained, is a means for workers and families to come to the United States legally. And what it also means, he said, is "an ability for people who have been here a very long time to get right with the law by paying a fine, by learning English, by paying their taxes, and getting to the back of the line.''
Morton said that's not amnesty because the path to citizenship would not come free.
"The question is, what is the appropriate sanction for someone who's been here a very long time,'' Morton said.
For example, he said, there are people who were brought here as children by their parents. They may be married and have children who, by virtue of their birth in this country, are U.S. citizens.
And Morton said any other alternative is unrealistic.
"Is the answer for the government to deport all 10.8 million people here in the United States?'' Morton said.
"That's not possible,'' he said, answering his own question.
"And it's not the right answer at the end of the day,'' he said. "The right answer is to balance serious, tough, sensible enforcement with rational, bipartisan comprehensive federal immigration reform that focuses our enforcement efforts where they make the most sense.''
Morton also repeated the Obama administration's opposition to Arizona's new immigration law.
"Very close cooperation and coordination with state and local law enforcement is a part of sensible immigration enforcement,'' he said. "But we don't think that 50 different immigration enforcement regimes is the answer.''
The U.S. Department of Justice, among others, sued the state over the new law. A federal judge last month issued a preliminary injunction against several key provisions from being enforced.