Ariz. deportation policy a model, feds say

The nation’s top immigration officials want other states to copy an Arizona program that releases non-violent, illegal-immigrant inmates from state prisons and deports them.

Only New York has a similar program, in which eligible inmates are turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials for immediate deportation.

Arizona has referred 1,443 state prisoners to ICE, saving $18.6 million, since the program began in 2005, said Dora Schriro, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections. On average, inmates were released 210 days early.

Also, 28 were caught after slipping back across the border and were convicted of new crimes in Arizona. Three of them received initial sentences ranging from 2½ to 3½ years. Their crimes included aggravated assault, domestic violence and burglary.

Eligible inmates typically were convicted of crimes from drunken driving to lower-level drug charges. Early this month, the state turned over three inmates for deportation. Two were convicted of drug charges, one for driving a stolen car.

Schriro said Arizona was the first state to team up with ICE under the Rapid Repatriation program to help state prison officials identify illegal immigrants when they are booked.

“It’s a great program. It keeps criminals off the streets of Arizona. It saves the state lots of money,” ICE spokesman Vincent Picard said.

Deportation figures

Statewide, ICE deported 42,449 immigrants in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30. Of those, 12,455, or 29 percent, had criminal records. Through mid-March of this fiscal year, ICE had deported 21,355 people, including 5,649 criminals.

Julie Myers, assistant secretary of homeland security for ICE, said that those inmates do not include violent criminals. Rapists and murderers do not qualify for early deportation, and only those who could be paroled are considered.

“People who are eligible for this program do not have significant criminal histories in Mexico or any other country,” Myers said. “For the worst of the worst, it’s absolutely imperative to keep them off any streets.”

Among Arizona’s 38,300 prison inmates, about 5,400 are designated criminal aliens, meaning they are in the country illegally or have valid visas but broke a law. Of those, 1,600 inmates, or 4 percent, of the prison population, are eligible for early deportation.

A Corrections Department review last fall reported that 40 percent of illegal immigrants were convicted of violent assaults and ineligible. Among those who could be released early, 37 percent were convicted of drug or alcohol charges and 18 percent committed property crimes.

An Arizona law passed in 1996 allows the state to turn over illegal immigrants to ICE for deportation before they complete their sentences and sets conditions for doing so. Inmates must serve at least half of their sentences, not be convicted of a violent or sexual offense, and agree not to fight their removal from the country.

If the deportee returns to the United States and is caught, the immigrant will serve the remainder of the original sentence and face up to 20 years in prison on charges of illegally re-entering the United States.

Myers said the government has stepped up enforcement on re-entry cases.

The enforcement idea gained prominence in Los Angeles, where ICE and federal prosecutors teamed up to imprison serious criminals under the nation’s re-entry laws. The government prosecuted 678 cases in 2007, up from 173 in 2006. Immigration cases outnumber all other types of prosecutions, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles.

In the federal fiscal year ending Oct. 31, the government prosecuted 74 people on felony re-entry charges in Arizona, up from 12 the year before, Picard said.

Reduced backlog

The number of Arizona’s early releases was small until 2005. That’s when ICE and the Department of Corrections struck an agreement to train corrections officers on immigration procedures and ICE transferred responsibility of deporting inmates to a division with more staff.

That allowed the agencies to begin reducing a backlog of inmates awaiting deportation. Schriro said the state projects 928 early releases this year and 249 in 2009.

Myers said the federal government has approached all the other states and is close to inking agreements with “a handful” in the next few months. She said populous border states with overcrowded prisons are a priority.

One Florida state lawmaker plans to introduce a bill to bring the program to the Sunshine State.

“These people are going to be deported when they get done anyhow,” Florida state Sen. Mike Bennett said. “Why not speed the process and get them out of here?”

In Arizona, the political climate is tilting toward tougher enforcement, which could spur resistance to releasing immigrants early. At the same time early releases are picking up, the Border Patrol is locking up more first-time border-crossers for 15 days typically.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio says early release is a bad idea.

“Why are we giving these guys breaks? Why don’t they do the full time, just like a U.S. citizen?” he asked. “If they are worried about money, if they don’t have the room, I have a tent city. I’ll take as many as you want.”

“Everybody knows they come right back (to the country),” Arpaio added.

Illegal immigrants serving sentences in county jails aren’t eligible for the early-release program.

Around the country, jailers don’t know the immigration status of their inmates unless they know to call ICE to ask. Arizona is rare exception because the prison system and Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies have access to ICE’s immigration databases.

Elsewhere, only 10 percent of the 3,100 local jails have access to immigration databases.

For now, local jailors call ICE’s support center in Vermont to find out if an inmate also is an illegal immigrant. The center handled a record 728,000 queries in the past fiscal year.
source: http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/0415deport0414.html

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