Specter decries cost to hold deportable alien criminals
He spoke at the Chester County Prison. He wants an efficient plan to send them back to their home countries.
By Michael Matza and Kathleen Brady Shea
Inquirer Staff Writers
Posted on Tue, Feb. 19, 2008
Up to 1,000 deportable aliens are incarcerated in Pennsylvania lock-ups on any given day, costing $20 million a year – which could be saved if the offenders were efficiently expelled, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter said yesterday during a visit to the Chester County jail to spotlight the broader national costs of illegal immigration.
While states are federally reimbursed for the cost of incarcerating undocumented immigrants, the toll ultimately is borne by all taxpayers.
“The financial burden is very substantial,” Specter said yesterday at the Chester County Prison in West Chester, where he met with Warden D. Edward McFadden and officials from the Department of Homeland Security's office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“We have an enormously serious problem at the national level,” he said.
The Department of Homeland Security has estimated that in 2007, about 302,000 “removable aliens” were admitted to state and local jails.
“Most . . . incarcerated aliens are being released into the U.S. at the conclusion of their respective sentences” because of lack of federal resources, the agency said.
Specter, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been touring state facilities “to better understand the issues surrounding the identification and deportation of criminal aliens,” his office said in a news release.
Earlier this month, he visited the state correctional facility at Camp Hill.
Specter said he chose Chester County for yesterday's visit because the prison has a substantial number of illegal immigrant inmates. Chester County is home to thousands of migrants who work in the mushroom industry.
The prison has an average population of about 950. Records showed 63 illegal immigrant inmates yesterday in the prison population.
McFadden said prison statistics showed that one out of 15 inmates had a charge or detainer from ICE.
Citing a 2006 report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, Specter said a substantial number of aliens who have committed crimes that would make them deportable often are released rather than deported due to inadequate resources to identify and hold them.
Critics of the removal effort have called it “catch and release.” ICE spokesman Michael Gilhooley said yesterday that the agency was making headway and was able to check the immigration status of “100 percent of the names” brought to its attention by local officials.
Among the difficulties Specter cited were a shortage of beds for immigrants facing removal, inaccurate recordkeeping, and problems compelling their native countries to repatriate them.
Of 774,112 illegal aliens apprehended nationwide between 2003 and 2006, 36 percent were released because of shortages in processing personnel, bed space, and the funding needed to detain them while their immigration status was adjudicated, according to the federal report.
Specter said he would like to see the secretary of state use her power to limit visas to those nations that do not readily take back convicted aliens. He also suggested withholding foreign aid from countries that were uncooperative.
Nicole Thompson, a State Department spokeswoman assigned as duty officer on President's Day, said she did not have enough information at hand to immediately comment on Specter's suggestions.
The 2006 inspector general's report, however, does make mention of a joint State Department, Homeland Security and National Security Council “Sanctions Working Group” that has put pressure on noncooperating countries to speed up the issuance of the travel documents that are needed when an alien is removed from the United States and returned to his or her native land.
The problem has persisted, especially with removals to Jamaica and certain countries in Asia.
“As a result of these barriers to removal,” the report found, 14 percent of allotted detention beds were filled by illegal aliens whose countries were either slow or unwilling to issue the necessary paperwork. A recent agreement with Vietnam is expected to speed up the process regarding Vietnamese nationals.
Specter also said that district attorneys who prosecute criminal cases have the discretion to include deportation language in plea agreements with inmates who are willing to return home in exchange for shorter sentences.
University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Sarah Paoletti, director of Penn's Transnational Legal Clinic, which represents immigrants in asylum cases, said the plea-bargain idea sounds reasonable but is prone to pitfalls.
“Criminal defense attorneys aren't trained in immigration law,” she said, so their clients could end up signing documents without understanding the full consequences.
Following deportation, an immigrant is ineligible to seek legal reentry to the United States for at least 10 years.