Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The faces of illegal immigration (Wenatchee World)

The faces of illegal immigration
For inmates, a final day in Wenatchee

By Jaime Adame
World staff writer
Posted May 16, 2008

WENATCHEE — Skate shoes or cowboy boots, chains connected each pair of ankles.

Up close, the faces of illegal immigration do not all look alike. Two were boyish, another had a beard turned mostly gray.

All six men, however, were led outside Wednesday morning to a van parked in the loading area of Chelan County Regional Justice Center.

Their lives in the days or weeks prior had included run-ins with the law and time spent in jail. Those sentences had been served, but, as a result of an aggressive federal push to identify criminal immigrants held in jails or facing charges in court, the men — all Mexican nationals — were headed from jail to a federal detention center in Tacoma.

Giving basic commands in a mix of English and Spanish to the handcuffed men were two uniformed officers with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The federal agency oversees the recently created Criminal Alien Program that focuses on jails and prisons.

"We're trying to interview everybody that claims to be foreign born," said Neil Clark, field director for the director of ICE that oversees the program in the Northwest. Clark was in Wenatchee to give a reporter a peek at ICE operations inside the jail.

Locally, the program has already led to a dramatic increase in the number of inmates placed on immigration holds.

On an average day last December, 4.26 inmates in jail were in custody solely because of an ICE hold, according to statistics kept by jail officials. Most of these inmates were brought in on criminal charges by local law enforcement. In March, the number was up to 4.8 inmates on an average day.

The average was 0.29 inmates on ICE holds, according to a December 2005 jail population report.

Statewide, since June of last year 4,453 inmates have been detained by ICE and placed into removal proceedings, according to statistics kept by the agency.

In the immigration court system, a person is not granted a court-appointed lawyer, though they have the right to find a lawyer to represent them. Detainees go before a judge who will determine whether they should be removed from the country, unless the detainee's deportation status has previously been determined by a judge.

The difference is that some ICE staff now focus full time on jail checks.

Resources are the key to the Criminal Alien Program, said Clark.

"Even though it's in its infant stages, it's shown a lot of success because of devoting staff to that," Clark said.

Acting quickly
Hector Nuñez-Laguna is 19. He has a buzz cut, and is wearing a red T-shirt along with dirty work boots. He smiles easily when talking with other detainees.

"That's how it is," he shrugs when asked by a reporter his thoughts about what may be a one-way trip to Tacoma.

Still, he said he didn't think it would work out this way May 7 when he was pulled over for speeding in Manson. He did not have a valid driver's license, so he was booked into jail that evening, he said.

He went before a judge the next morning and was issued a $155 ticket, he said. But he was taken into custody by an ICE agent, and has been waiting in jail to be transferred to Tacoma ever since.

ICE officials confirmed Nuñez had been convicted for not having a valid operators' license, while sheriff's office records show he already had a warrant for driving without a license when pulled over May 7 by the Washington State Patrol.

The agency touts the public safety merits of the program. Among the six men being transported out of jail Wednesday, one had a felony gun possession conviction and two had felony drug convictions, according to information supplied by ICE. Two, including Nuñez, had a single misdemeanor conviction. Out of the six, three had DUI convictions and two had misdemeanor assault convictions.

The Criminal Alien Program seeks to identify both illegal immigrants and legal alien residents whose crimes would cause them to be deported.

The severity of the crime can matter for non-citizens in the county legally, said Lorie Dankers, an ICE spokeswoman also in Wenatchee on Wednesday. Some offenses are deportable, while others are not, though other factors are also considered by a judge, said Dankers. Such factors might include ties to the community and employment status.

Inmates without any legal basis to be in the country, however, will be placed on an immigration hold regardless of whether they are convicted of a crime, Dankers said — if the local Wenatchee ICE staff realize an inmate may be deportable.

ICE tools
Federal authorities began looking for illegal immigrants in prisons in 1988, spanning about 30 federal institutions and some state facilities. When ICE was created in 2003, it took over the effort.

The Criminal Alien Program was ramped up, according to Clark, in June of last year, when the prison, jail and court-based efforts were moved to the Office of Detention and Removal division of ICE.

The process of identifying a possible illegal resident has remained largely the same, even after the reorganization, Dankers said.

When an inmate at Chelan County Regional Justice Center is booked, jail staff ask him or her in what country they were born.

An ICE agent can review all bookings and see how the inmates answered. Those inmates who answered that they are foreign born are then briefly re-interviewed by the ICE agent, and their fingerprints run through an online database to check to see if they had previous contact with immigration officers.

Documentation may be asked for and provided. On Wednesday, an ICE agent in Chelan County Regional Justice Center said that a day earlier, he interviewed four people, three of whom were in the country legally.

If someone is an illegal resident, they will admit it to an ICE officer the overwhelming majority of the time, said Clark, though some inmates choose not to answer questions about birthplace posed by jail staff.

"If they refuse to talk to me, I have the ability to place a hold on them," said the local ICE agent in the jail. The Wenatchee World agreed to a condition put forth by ICE officials to not name agents. Dankers said the anonymity is out of concern for their safety.

Sometimes an inmate may bail out before an ICE agent has a chance to interview them. ICE doesn't staff around the clock at the Chelan County jail, but, as the case of Nuñez shows, a short stay doesn't mean an inmate will be overlooked.

Upset at the law, system
Christian Peña-Grajeda is not smiling. He says he came to the United States on a visa that expired in February, then overstayed to take care of an ailing girlfriend.

He said he's upset at the criminal justice system.

He said he reported a car crash involving his girlfriend only to be wrongly arrested by East Wenatchee police.

Peña-Grajeda, 26, says he was booked on a reckless endangerment charge. The police thought he jerked the wheel as a passenger, causing the wreck, he explained. But that wasn't the case, he said, noting that a judge reduced the charge to disorderly conduct.

He admits to drinking, but said his girlfriend would have backed his story up in court, if a judge would have allowed it.

Whatever may have led to Peña-Grajeda's case, some critics of ICE's policy worry that scrutiny of the jails will lead illegal immigrants to report fewer crimes. If a man or woman wants to report being assaulted by their spouse, for instance, an arrest may lead to deportation — perhaps an unintended consequence for the person reporting the crime.

Enrique Bazan, 46, is not happy either. First, at the jail, he complains that he wasn't given needed medication, and he wants to have it shipped in his belongings to Tacoma. Getting ready to load the van, ICE agents had a paper bag stapled shut for each inmate. They will take with them only what they had when they entered the jail.

Among the six in jail Wednesday, two were previously deported, according to ICE. Bazan has been deported three times, according to ICE. If he's deported again — he said he's "halfway legal," but doesn't have the money for a good lawyer — he'll leave behind a wife, he said. His criminal history includes a drug possession conviction, DUI, and misdemeanor assault, according to ICE.

Bazan doesn't understand how so many jobs can be offered to non-legal residents, and then those same residents can be deported.

He has a word for it, "exploitation," and doesn't understand why the area fruit businesses won't do more for their workers.

Take away the jobs, and the immigrants will stay away, he said. Or, make the workers legal.

Interim jail director Phil Stanley has no explanation why inmates are asked by jail staff about their nationality upon their booking — "It's just one of the questions we ask," he said in February when asked by a reporter — but Clark said Wednesday that asking the question is in line with standard practices for all jails and prisons.

Jails that house illegal immigrants receive some money by the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, with $56,416 in revenue in the 2008 budget for Chelan County Regional Justice Center (less than one percent of the jail's projected revenues). Once a person is in jail solely on an ICE or U.S. Border Patrol hold, the federal government pays for the cost of their stay.

"I would say they are very cooperative," said Clark. Some jails do more to accomodate ICE than others, he said. While the agency ranks jails and prisons to decide where to deploy resources, those tiered rankings are not released to the public, said Dankers.

Part of the nationwide push includes technology. In Wenatchee, the technology has been in place for a few years to use an FBI computer database that reveals a person's criminal history — and cross-checks with a Department of Homeland Security database. This can tell ICE agents about a person's prior contacts with ICE or with Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency folded into ICE in 2003 that previously enforced immigration law.

Nuñez, according to ICE, was previously granted a voluntary return in 2005, meaning he never went through a formal deportation procedure after agreeing to return to Mexico.

But such an action should still show up in the computer as a red flag to ICE agents years later.

Over time
Evaristo Manjarez-Toscano was 19 when he first came to the United States in 1985, he told a reporter.

It's easy to recognize him from a tiny black-and-white photo about that old that shows up on a computer screen.

At the Wenatchee Post Office building, the ICE officer shows a reporter the results from the Manjarez' fingerprints. Four times Manjarez has been contacted by ICE or immigration officials, according to the database. He was deported twice, in 2001 and 2007, according to information released separately to a reporter.

The first contact in the 1980s shows Manjarez as a young man, his tousled hair evident then, though not quite as tousled as it was Wednesday.

He is now 42, according to jail records, and says he's the father of two daughters, one 10, the other 5, who he lives with locally along with their mother.

In 1985, he came to Washington from the Mexican state of Colima, following seven siblings, he said.

And though he admits to coming illegally, he said he was granted amnesty in the 1980s.

Then, however, he appeared before a judge after giving a ride to a man attempting to deliver marijuana, he said. Ultimately, there was no conviction, but the incident changed his immigration status.

He said he was deported in 1996 (ICE did not release any information about any such deportation), then walked with a group of about 10 others for three days and three nights, ending up near San Diego.

He was booked May 10 on a DUI conviction in Douglas County. According to ICE, he has also been previously convicted of misdemeanor assault, a civil offense and a probation violation.

Working most recently pruning orchard trees, Manjarez said that his family will follow him to Mexico if he's deported.

"Even if we become poorer for doing so, we'll be together," Manjarez said.

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