Monday, May 12, 2008

Feds combing jails for illegal immigrants (Seattle Times)

Feds combing jails for illegal immigrants

By Lornet Turnbull
Seattle Times staff reporter
Monday, May 12, 2008 - Page updated at 10:15 AM

A little-noticed program to remove criminal immigrants from the U.S. has local immigration officials boasting about big results as they comb jails, juvenile centers and courts across Washington state in search of deportable inmates.

Since their big push began last June, immigration officials have placed 4,453 legal and illegal immigrants from throughout the state into removal proceedings. Last year, criminals represented about one-third of all immigrants who were expelled from the Northwest region and the U.S.

The ramped-up effort comes at a time of heightened national security and amidst a public outcry over immigrants who commit serious crimes -- including at least three high-profile homicides in the Puget Sound region in recent years.

"Our primary focus is providing safety and security for law-abiding citizens and legal residents of this country," said Neil Clark, field director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

"We want these people off the streets."

Confronted by an impaired federal immigration system, state and local governments have developed a patchwork of policies and practices for dealing with immigrants -- particularly those here illegally. As a result, some jails work willingly with ICE; others merely tolerate its presence.

Under the so-called Criminal Alien Program, ICE officers identify and then request that jailers place holds on deportable immigrants before they are released from custody.

For those who bail out of jail before a hold is put on them, officers pursue them in other ways.
And in at least one instance locally, that has led to friction.

A Mason County District Court judge raised concerns over ICE officers appearing outside her courtroom two recent weeks in a row looking for defendants.

In a posting on an electronic mailing list for municipal and district court judges, Judge Victoria Meadows said ICE officers have searched her foreign-language calendar and asked her Spanish interpreter to identify a defendant who was to appear before her. The interpreter declined.

Meadows said she worries officers' presence around and outside her courtroom could deter some defendants from showing up. "I have a very good appearance record ... ," Meadows said. "I don't want to interfere with ICE's work. But we also don't want them interfering with the court process."

ICE's Clark said his agency wants criminal immigrants penalized for their actions and tries to work closely with courts and local enforcement to make criminal and immigration laws work together.

The day officers were at Meadows' court, he said, they had been seeking two illegal immigrants who faced felony charges for illegally re-entering the U.S. after being deported. Both posted bail after their arrest by local police for a different crime and were given a court date. ICE officers had planned to apprehend them then, Clark said, adding: "We deemed them a priority."

But neither man showed up. Judge Meadows said at least one of the defendants took off after recognizing the ICE officers.

Homicides spur concern
Groups that oppose illegal immigration applaud ICE's actions, saying they'd like to see the agency do even more.

They point to some high-profile local cases -- Terapon Adhahn, an immigrant from Thailand sentenced recently to life in prison for the kidnap, rape and murder last year of a Tacoma girl; Jonathan Rowan, a British subject who was living in the U.S. illegally when he fatally shot his girlfriend at the University of Washington last spring; and Joseph Njonge, an immigrant from Kenya, charged with strangling a 75-year-old woman in the parking lot of her husband's Federal Way nursing home in March.

"You commit a crime, I don't care if you're here legally or not, we want you out of the country," said Leon Donahue, with a group called Washingtonians for Immigration Reform.

As part of the push to make the removal of criminal immigrants a priority, ICE transferred the program from its investigations division to its detention and removal operations last year and beefed up staffing and resources. "It's turning out great results," Clark said.

Immigration advocates warn immigrants who are not U.S. citizens that the surest way to avoid deportation is to stay out of trouble and out of jail.

"The most important thing to remember, if you do get arrested, is to stay silent -- about everything," said immigration attorney Adolfo Ojeda-Casimiro.

Simple question is key
The most crucial part of ICE's criminal-alien program is information the immigrants themselves supply, based on a question people are routinely asked when booked into jail: Where were you born?

Such record keeping is necessary for state and local governments to receive federal funds for incarcerating undocumented criminal immigrants. In King County, jail officials say the foreign-born question is also asked for medical reasons, to potentially identify those from countries with high incidences of tuberculosis.

Immigration officers process names of the foreign born to discover those who are deportable. That includes not just illegal immigrants but also legal green-card holders who may eventually be found guilty of certain kinds of crimes that make them deportable.

ICE officers place an immigration hold on them -- guaranteeing ICE will be notified before such an immigrant is released -- and immediately begin trying to deport them.

Clark said what happened in Mason County could happen anywhere: "We are not limited in how we locate these criminals we're going after," Clark said.

But some immigration attorneys worry that the program violates people's rights.

"I have serious concerns about the way this information, which local governments are allegedly collecting for purposes of federal funding, is being used for the purposes of ICE enforcement," said Ann Benson, directing attorney for the Washington Defender Association's Immigration Project.

The project was established to help lawyers and judges navigate the intersection between criminal and immigration law.

Attorneys say immigrants don't have to tell where they were born.

Benson said, "People are providing information they are not being advised they have the right not to provide."

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