More Being Forced Out Of U.S., But Criminal Deportations Decline, Latest Data Indicates

More being forced out of U.S.
But criminal deportations declined, latest data indicate

Oct. 13, 2007, 1:02AM
Houston Chronicle

The federal government says it has steadily increased the number of illegal immigrants it removes from the country annually, but critics say the effort is still shackled by a critical lack of personnel and detention facilities.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently released its latest data on the number of illegal immigrants deported.

In fiscal year 2007, which ended Sept. 30, ICE deported 221,600 illegal immigrants, including 84,700 who were convicted of criminal offenses. In the previous fiscal year, 204,200 were deported, although a greater number 89,500 of immigrants with criminal convictions were deported.

Critics say those numbers are only a small percentage of the nation's undocumented population. They also say ICE still doesn't have the manpower or detention facility space to remove thousands of undocumented immigrants held in local jails.

''Even the most obvious candidates for deportation, people in jail whose sentences are coming to an end, we don't even get most of them thrown out of the country,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that favors limited immigration.

''The majority of criminal aliens finishing their jail time are still released into the community, rather than being deported.”

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman did not dispute those claims.

The Department of Homeland Security estimated 302,500 illegal immigrants would be detained in state and local jails in the 2007 fiscal year, according to a report last year by the Office of the Inspector General.

“Most of these incarcerated are being released into the U.S. at the conclusion of their respective sentences because (ICE) does not have the resources to identify, detain and remove these aliens,” the Inspector General reported.

The report also said ICE would need an additional 34,653 detention beds at a cost of $1.1 billion to detain and remove them.

The agency has budgeted $2.1 billion for detention and removal operations for the 2008 fiscal year, up from $1.9 billion in 2007.

ICE officials say they are working with local law enforcement agencies to deport jailed illegal immigrants through its Criminal Alien Program. This effort allows ICE agents to work with state and local law enforcement to enter detention facilities to identify illegal immigrants for deportation.

''Under our Criminal Alien Program, we are significantly increasing our efficiency and our cooperative working agreements with local police departments and jails all over the country,” said ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok.

“We are taking off the streets, and out of prison, as many of the criminal aliens as our resources allow,” he added.

Immigration lawyers and those favoring immigration reform say cranking up deportations would do little to reduce what they call the largest population of illegal immigrants in U.S. history. They argue that comprehensive immigration reform with some form of amnesty is the only solution.

''We have about a half a million coming in every year, so we're not deporting even half of those who are coming in and there are at least 12 million out there,” said Angela Kelley, director of the Immigration Policy Center in Washington, D.C., a think tank that supports immigrant rights. ''It's still not a solution.”

Kelley said it was ''a little bit of a distortion” for the government's immigration tally to include immigrants deported by expedited removal at the border. Expedited removal allows ICE agents to deport undocumented immigrants without a hearing before a judge if they are caught within 100 miles of the border and within 14 days of entry.

Groups on opposite sides of the immigration debate agree deportation alone will not significantly reduce the undocumented population.

''Obviously, we're doing better with deportations,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors tightened immigration controls. ''But until we deal with these magnets that draw people to this country, increasing deportations alone is like getting a larger bucket to get water out of a sinking boat.”

Meanwhile, new concerns over deportations are emerging in Los Angeles, where attorneys are attempting to widen a lawsuit against ICE after the agency acknowledged drugging immigrants prior to deportation.

''It's really shocking. They are disregarding the Constitution,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in Los Angeles. ''They are really treating these immigrants like animals.”

The ACLU brought suit in June in defense of two immigrants. One of them is Raymond Soeoth, a Christian minister from Indonesia who was seeking asylum. In 2004, immigration agents attempting to deport the pastor injected him with Haldol, a powerful psychotropic drug that can be lethal, without doctor examination, the suit states. “I suppose they think this is the most convenient way to silence people and get them out of the country. But it is still unconstitutional, wrong and dangerous to their health,” said Arulanantham.

Rusnok, the ICE spokesman, said drugging deportees ''is rare, but it does happen.”

''There are rare times when ICE will request, through a judge, that a person we're trying to deport be medicated beforehand because he has demonstrated to be a danger to himself or others,” he said.