Feds deport more felons from Georgia prisons
Last year, state doubled number of inmates it sent to ICE, compared to 2002
By JULIA MALONE
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 06/17/08
Washington After years of complaints about the failure of the federal government to deport foreign nationals who commit serious crimes, new statistics for Georgia indicate stepped-up efforts are having an impact, particularly in state prisons.
The Georgia Department of Corrections transferred 433 felons to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation proceedings in 2007, the most recent year for which state and federal data are available. That's more than twice as many as the 189 handed over to the agency in 2002.
Under federal law, a criminal who is in the country illegally is subject to deportation, as are those who are here legally but who commit aggravated felonies, such as drug trafficking, violent crimes or theft, carrying sentences of at least one year in prison.
However, enforcement nationwide has come under criticism for more than a decade. Government auditors have faulted federal immigration authorities for failing to set up a reliable system to monitor the prison population and remove those eligible for deportation. Studies have repeatedly found that thousands of convicts who should have been deported were instead released back into the community.
In Georgia, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution five years ago conducted a study of prison data and found violent criminals who were set free instead of being sent back to their home countries. At least three child molesters who were illegal immigrants had served time in Georgia prisons but escaped the attention of federal authorities. All three were released back into the community.
“There were people who slipped through the system,” said Ray Simonse, who a year ago took over as Atlanta field director for detention and removal for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Since then, the job of tracking and removing foreign inmates nationwide has been taken over by ICE, a new agency in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Simonse said the effort has been intensified.
He now has a bigger staff thanks to criminal alien program teams of 10 specialists who monitor foreign-born inmates in his region, which includes Georgia and the Carolinas. Simonse said in those three states, his agency now provides “100 percent” coverage of state prisons. The agency has also set up ties with some, but not all, county and local jails.
Simonse said his teams interview foreign-born inmates as the first step to identifying those who might be returned to their home countries.
Of equal importance, the Atlanta regional office now has the space to hold convicted criminals during the deportation process. The Stewart Detention Center, a 1,700-person facility in Lumpkin, 150 miles southwest of Atlanta, opened two years ago as one of the nation's largest holding facilities for the immigration agency.
Two or three times a week, air transports arrive at the Columbus airport to pick up detainees and take them to Mexico or Central America, Simonse said.
The overall effectiveness of the effort to remove deportable criminals is difficult to gauge, in part because there are as many as 450,000 foreign-born inmates scattered among 45,000 prisons and jails nationwide. Officials at ICE and the U.S. Department of Justice said they have no way of providing exact counts or the percentage who are illegal immigrants.
Even so, an examination of about a dozen cases of foreign-born inmates released by Georgia prisons in the past few years indicates that nearly all had been reviewed by federal immigration officers.
Those set free after serving time appear to have been released properly. Some had become U.S. citizens before their crimes, one had come from a country Vietnam that refused to allow his return, and a convicted murderer had been transferred to Canada to serve out a life sentence.
In one case, the system may have broken down, however.
David Alejandro Velasquez, a Mexican national, served a year in prison for robbery and “impersonating another” in Georgia's Whitfield County and was released to immigration authorities for deportation in 2005. A year later, Velasquez was arrested in the same county on similar charges.
Asked about the Velasquez case, ICE officials at first said Velasquez was in Mexico. They were unaware that he was in Georgia and again serving prison time, although the information was available on the public Web site of the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Simonse said his office would investigate the case because an inmate who was deported could be charged for returning to the United States.
ICE officials did not reply to repeated requests for further information about that investigation, whether the earlier deportation order had ever been carried out, or how they missed Velasquez's return to Georgia's prison system.
Nationwide, the push to track and deport foreign criminals, especially those who are in the country illegally, has won recent backing and greater financing from Congress.
Julie Myers, the Homeland Security Department's assistant secretary for immigration enforcement, has said targeting deportable criminals was a “top priority” for ICE. She has predicted her agency would identify and file charges against more than 200,000 inmates during this fiscal year, which ends in September. That would be triple the number from just two years ago.
In a round-table discussion with reporters earlier this year, Myers conceded her agency does not yet have a handle on how many deportable criminals are in the country. She said ICE has only a “very rough” estimate that 300,000 to 450,000 foreign citizens are incarcerated at any given time.
Her agency has focused its efforts on state and federal prisons, which are rated as high-risk for serious criminals. Myers conceded that coverage remains spotty for local and county jails. She outlined plans for computerizing immigration status information for every person booked into the nation's jails and prisons. Implementation is more than three years away, however.
In the meantime, some localities have agreements with ICE to train local police to be partners in immigration enforcement. For the past year, Cobb County has been identifying jail inmates who are deportable. Hall and Whitfield counties recently launched a similar effort, and Gwinnett has applied to join the same program.
Such local-federal partnerships have been limited nationwide, in part because localities must pay the salaries and overtime for officers to take intensive training. And if ICE fails to move immigration detainees quickly into federal facilities, local jails can become overcrowded.
In addition, efforts to check the immigration status of those arrested for minor violations have drawn criticism.
“They should be focusing on people who have committed very serious crimes” and not traffic offenders caught by local police, said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Advocates of reducing the immigration flow are applauding the increased enforcement efforts in prisons and jails.
“This is something that the feds have been promising for years because it's the easiest kind of deportation to be for,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C., based group that has long argued for tough enforcement of immigration laws.
Staff writers Megan Clarke, Nancy Badertscher, Kathy Jefcoats, Yolanda Rodriguez and Beth Warren contributed to this article.