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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Deportation of criminals is up, say feds

By Chelsea Phua and Miranda Simon
The Sacramento Bee
Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 1A

More illegal immigrants with criminal convictions are being deported in recent years, driving up the number of people being removed from the United States, according to data from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

At the same time, deportation numbers for those deemed noncriminals have declined.

Of the 350,000 people deported this year, more than half had criminal convictions, a 55 percent increase since 2008, ICE data show.

By contrast, noncriminal deportations – which include voluntary returns – have dropped 30 percent.

Regional numbers echo the national trend. Criminal deportations from the San Francisco office, which oversees ICE operations from Bakersfield to the Oregon border, are up about 12 percent. Noncriminal deportations are down 29 percent.

ICE officials said the trend shows a shift in the agency's priorities to focus on removing the most dangerous criminals from the country.

Mike Vaughn, an assistant field office director at ICE's Sacramento office, said the agency pays attention to anyone in the country illegally, as well as legal permanent residents who may have committed a crime that could jeopardize their status.

"But if we are looking at a guy who's just here with his family trying to better his life vs. a repeated offender, our priority is the criminal," said Vaughn, whose area of responsibility spans 26 counties – from Solano to the Nevada border and from Stanislaus to the Oregon border.

ICE officials attribute the increased deportations of undocumented criminals to expanded partnerships with local and state law enforcement as well as technological advances such as video teleconferencing, which allows ICE officers to interview potential deportees incarcerated in remote county jails.

The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE, began in 2008 to introduce an integrated system called "Secure Communities" to jails and prisons. Through technology that combines the databases of Homeland Security and the FBI, local and federal agencies share information on a person's criminal history and immigration status.

The automated process alerts local law enforcement and ICE officers to potential deportees the moment they are fingerprinted.

Secure Communities operates in 632 jurisdictions in 32 states, including Sacramento County. It is expected to expand nationwide in 2013. The latest available ICE data show about 26 percent of the more than 56,000 deportees under Secure Communities are classified as noncriminals.

The system has drawn criticism from both sides in the nation's ongoing immigration debate.

Groups advocating stringent immigration enforcement say more could be done.

"We can and should have more deportations," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He said ICE's focus on deporting the most violent criminals is "like putting up a speed limit sign on the highway that only applies if you are driving drunk or have guns in your car."

Immigrant rights groups, on the other hand, contend the majority of people being deported under the new strategy either are not criminals or were charged with low-level offenses, such as public intoxication or petty theft.

"Immigrant residents are being picked up by ICE … prior to receiving any due process regarding the alleged charges," said Angela Chan, staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus, a civil rights organization serving low-income Asian Pacific American communities.

A few agencies, including the San Francisco County Sheriff's Department, have asked to opt out of the program, Chan said.

But not Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, who said the collaboration between his department and ICE likely has resulted in fewer crimes being committed by illegal immigrants in Sacramento than in other large metropolitan areas.

Inmates in Sacramento-area jails who are identified for deportation are taken to the ICE office on Capitol Mall.

On a recent September day, 23 people arrived at the office, were fingerprinted, read their rights and issued paperwork to review and sign.

Of the 23, three did not have criminal convictions, Vaughn said. Seven had committed violent crimes that included battery and sexual intercourse with a minor.

Those convicted of a lesser crime who had not already been repeatedly deported were given the chance to argue their case before an immigration judge in San Francisco, or to voluntarily return to their home country, Vaughn said. That day, seven of the 23 opted for voluntary return and six were deported.

All 23 were given a free three-minute phone call.

Jeremias Carrasco, 43, whose criminal record included thefts and a felony burglary, already had been deported four times. He called his girlfriend of 14 years, Tina Sandoval.

She came with a small green suitcase containing his clothes and $30. They said goodbye through a glass panel. He pressed his fingers to his lips and then onto the panel. "I love you, babe," he told her.

He is familiar with the journey: a bus ride to Oakland, followed by a flight to San Diego, another bus ride to the Mexican border and a short walk across.

Carrasco said he has built his life in the United States, with three American-born children, two of whom are in the Marine Corps. His 21-year-old son recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, he said. "There's nothing there for me in Mexico," he said.

For Sergio Vasquez, 33, whose crimes included spousal abuse and felony forgery and who had been deported twice before, returning to Mexico was a chance to redeem himself.

"I want to leave this country and apply to come back legally," Vasquez said. "I'm tired of being illegal. I'm tired of watching over my shoulders everyday when I go to work."

More photos from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement processing office."I want to leave this country and apply to come back legally. I'm tired of being illegal. I'm tired of watching over my shoulders everyday when I go to work."

SERGIO VASQUEZ, whose crimes included spousal abuse and felony forgery and who had been deported twice before, saying a return to Mexico is a chance to redeem himself