Lack of funds and space frees suspects
Data show ICE releases alleged illegal immigrants, violent convicts
By Susan Carroll
The Houston Chronicle, August 2, 2009
U.S. immigration officials have released from federal custody hundreds of suspected illegal immigrants accused or convicted of crimes, including homicide and sexual assault, because of a lack of space and funds, according to internal records.
The data, obtained by the Houston Chronicle through a Freedom of Information Act request, show that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials documented releasing suspects classified as 'criminal aliens' during the past five years because of resource shortages.
Mary Loiselle, deputy director for ICE's detention and removal operations, said the agency does not routinely release suspects specifically because of a 'lack of space' or 'lack of funds.'
ICE could not explain why there were hundreds of documented releases for lack of resources or provide information on individual cases.
It is unclear whether the illegal immigrants identified in the records simply absconded after being released from custody and remain in the U.S. or eventually were deported.
Loiselle questioned the quality of the agency's own data related to the releases. 'We admit that people make keystroke mistakes and judgment errors,' she said.
'I don't want to say every (entry) is wrong, but for the most part, we don't have those issues,' she said. 'We don't have a lack of space or lack of funds.'
But ICE's union leaders tell a different story. They said field agents are reporting significant bed space and funding shortages, and are being told by supervisors to cut 'criminal aliens' loose for those reasons.
'The whole notion that we have enough bed space or (bed) funding is absolutely false,' said Chris Crane, ICE Council 118's vice president for Detention and Removal Operations.
He said detention and removal officers in certain ICE districts routinely take illegal immigrants into custody from local jails to process for deportation, only to be told by management: '?Hey, we don't have any money for beds. You need to kick this guy out the backdoor,'?' he said.
'I really believe that it's a nationwide problem,' Crane said. 'I'm hesitant for the sake of employees to say where some of these locations are, but I have talked to some agents who said their districts have run out of funds for bed space and are ordering their officers to release as many prisoners as possible.'
ICE declined to respond to the union's statements.
We want to see results'
U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, said Congress has made funding bed space a top priority in recent years, particularly after a 2006 Department of Homeland Security Inspector General report found that shortages of ICE bed space, personnel and funds had created an 'unofficial, mini-amnesty' program for 'criminal aliens.'
ICE received $1.4 billion in the 2009 fiscal year to target for deportation illegal immigrants with criminal records.
'We keep pouring money at this problem,' Brady said. 'We want to see results. And yet the reports keep coming back that there are loopholes. It's very frustrating.'
ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said the data released to the Chronicle documents the number of charges and convictions against illegal immigrants who were released not the number of people. Rocha said ICE was unable to provide the number or names of individuals released.
In the data, ICE recorded more than 800 charges or convictions against 'criminal aliens' released from custody specifically because of lack of resources from the 2003 fiscal year through February. More than 300 of those were recorded in 2008 and the first four months of the 2009 fiscal year.
ICE was unable to provide additional information on 10 homicide, sexual assault and weapons cases identified in the data and requested by the Chronicle.
Rocha said ICE has ordered its own review of releases recorded in its computer system because of lack of resources, but the results were not available.
According to ICE's files:
* Suspected illegal immigrants accused of or convicted of homicide were released from custody because of 'lack of space' or 'lack of funds' in Detroit, Chicago, St. Paul, Minn., and San Francisco. Three of the cases involved suspects released and placed on orders of supervision, which require them to check in periodically with ICE before their scheduled court date. One case involved a release on an order of recognizance, which does not involve supervision or require suspects to post a bond.
* Atlanta, Miami and Salt Lake City documented releases of 'sexual assault' suspects or convicts because of money or space shortages. The suspects were released on orders of supervision and on their own recognizance, the records show. The most recent case was recorded in 2009.
* ICE officials in Houston released people accused or convicted of 21 crimes ranging from assault to burglary to 'dangerous drugs' on their own recognizance from 2003 through 2005 years because of resource problems. During the past two years, ICE also recorded two instances of releases for suspects listed as having 'weapons offenses' in Houston under orders of supervision because of lack of space, the records show.
Loiselle said the numbers of releases in the internal data attributed to resource issues appear to be 'pretty small,' considering that more than 400,000 suspected illegal immigrants are taken into ICE custody annually.
Crane, the union leader, said field agents are given no formal instructions on how to record releases due to resource shortages, however, and said he worried that the data on file at the agency 'doesn't reflect the larger number of releases of criminal aliens that are happening within ICE.'
Mandates in place
Loiselle said ICE has made progress with the detention of suspected illegal immigrants convicted of crimes.
In the spring of 2008, ICE announced a multiyear, multibillion-dollar initiative to target the most serious of the estimated 300,000 to 450,000 illegal immigrants incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons annually.
Congress mandates that ICE detain certain classes of illegal immigrants, including those convicted of aggravated felonies, with very limited exceptions.
Loiselle said ICE follows those detention rules, but added that there are many reasons why suspected 'criminal aliens' may be released from ICE custody. If their home country refuses to issue them travel papers, ICE must release them within six months except under special circumstances.
Loiselle also said some legal immigrants may be charged with a serious crime and entered into ICE's removals database, but are not convicted and therefore are not subject to deportation.
However, ICE could not explain why those situations would be coded in their data as releases for resources.
Loiselle did acknowledge that the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, which was merged into ICE in 2003, had to release suspected illegal immigrants because of resource shortages, but she said funding and bed space have grown exponentially in recent years and have helped alleviate the problems.
In the 2009 fiscal year, ICE was authorized for more than 33,400 beds, up from 19,700 in 2001.
ICE's bed space and funding situation is expected to become increasingly stretched with the expansion of ICE's partnerships with local law enforcement agencies to screen illegal immigrants in jails and prisons.
Concern for public
Crane said he fears that the public is unaware of ICE's resource issues or of how many suspected illegal immigrants with criminal records are released as a result.
'I think they definitely need to track this issue better,' Crane said. 'The tracking needs to be honest so that Congress can see exactly what's happening.'
Brady suggested that officials at the agency 'need to speak up' if they have a funding problem.
'I know we've made considerable progress in terms of the number of beds and funding, but whether it meets the needs, that's the question,' the congressman said. 'It doesn't make sense to step up enforcement and detention and detection of criminal aliens, and then not have the bed space to actually detain and deport them.'