Blog Archive

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Enforcement and deportation costs skyrocket

Dispatch investigation: Deportation Nation (Part 3/3)
By Stephanie Czekalinski
December 28, 2010

It would cost each U.S. taxpayer about $500 to deport all 11.1 million immigrants estimated to be living here without permission.

On average, each deportation cost taxpayers more than $6,000 in 2010, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement budget numbers.

The amount Americans spend annually to detain and deport immigrants increased by more than 100 percent since 2005, to $2.55 billion in 2010. During the same period, the number of people deported more than doubled, to more than 390,000.

The Department of Homeland Security says the investment to step up enforcement of federal immigration laws has been worth it.

The number of illegal immigrants living in the United States has dropped from 12 million in March 2007 to 11.1 million in March 2009, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, D.C.

Homeland Security officials say the decrease is because of increased deportations and more funding for agents, investigators and prosecutors. But others say the national economic downturn has slowed the flow of illegal immigration.

Immigrant-rights activists question whether the mass deportations are money well spent. Most illegal immigrants are here to build productive lives and contribute to the economy, said Ruben Castilla Herrera of the Ohio Action Circle, a statewide grass-roots immigration-rights coalition.

Studies disagree about whether illegal immigrants are a net benefit to or drain on the U.S. economy.

According to the conservative research group the Heritage Foundation, $100billion in annual welfare spending goes to households headed by immigrants with high-school degrees or less. If illegal immigrants were given a path to citizenship, the welfare system would be flooded with new recipients, the Heritage Foundation says.

On the other side, the Immigration Policy Center, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., says legalizing the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants would increase the country's gross domestic product by $1.5trillion over 10 years.

No one disagrees that it costs money to deport someone. In some cases, taxpayers pay to repeatedly deport the same individuals, who keep sneaking back into the U.S.

Stepped-up prosecution

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration laws, has been referring re-entry cases to prosecutors in the hope that the prospect of prison time will send illegal immigrants a message: Don't come back.

Prosecuting and imprisoning illegal immigrants takes up much of the federal court system's time.

Almost half the cases prosecuted in federal courts during the first 11months of 2010 were immigration-related, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, which gathers and analyzes data from public agencies.

Federal courts heard more cases that involved illegally entering the country, a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail for the first offense, than for any other crime, including drug offenses.

In February, Judge Sam Sparks of U.S. District Court in Austin, Texas, questioned prosecutors about the value of prosecuting people with no "significant criminal history" for immigration-law violations. His docket, like many others in federal courts across the country, was awash in immigration-related cases.

The cost of prosecuting immigrants with no criminal history other than re-entering the country, rather than deporting them again, "is simply mind-boggling," Sparks wrote."The U.S. Attorney's policy of prosecuting all aliens presents a cost to the American taxpayer at this time that is neither meritorious nor reasonable."

The increased prosecutions have not put a burden on prosecutors in southern Ohio, said Vipal J. Patel, district criminal chief for the U.S. attorney's office.

Nationwide, the number of criminal immigration convictions in federal courts in August was up more than 60 percent over the same period five years ago, according to TRAC. The No. 1 charge was sneaking back into the country after being deported.

Immigrants with no criminal history face a maximum of two years in prison if convicted of re-entry. Those who have committed significant crimes can face a maximum of 20 years.

In November, about 11 percent of people serving time in federal prisons had been convicted of immigration-law violations, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

It costs about $24,000 annually to hold someone in federal prison, according to a budget released by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2009. The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction says it cost about the same to keep someone for a year in Ohio prisons in 2010.

The lure of family

Ten-year-old Jamie Aristigue stood in front of about 150 people on the Statehouse lawn one afternoon in July and cried.

Her father, Fernando Aristigue, had "been taken away from us and is in jail," she said.

Jamie, her sister, Frida, 5, and her mother, Magali Cruz, 29, were participating in a faith-based rally that pushed for immigration reform.

ICE agents had detained Fernando Aristigue at the family's Westerville apartment in June.

He has been deported six times since 2005. He has returned each time.

Instead of simply deporting Aristigue a seventh time, federal prosecutors charged him with illegally re-entering the country, a felony.

Aristigue, 36, had never been convicted of breaking immigration law or any other law, according to court documents.

While taxpayers are footing the bill for deportations and imprisonment, illegal immigrants and their families, including their U.S. citizen children, also pay a price.

In November, the Aristigues' apartment was vacant. A clerk in a nearby Latino grocery remembered the family.

"It was a very sad case," said the clerk, who asked not to be identified. "There are a lot of very sad cases."

It's easy to understand why Aristigue risked federal prosecution, he said. Since Aristigue's arrest, his wife and daughters have returned to Mexico.

But there will be no reunion anytime soon. If a U.S. judge gives Aristigue the maximum sentence, it will be two years before he can join his family.

Cost beyond dollars

About 10 years ago, W. Tom Large was involved in a vehicle crash with an illegal immigrant. Both are still paying the price.

"It was like being in an explosion," said Large, 65, a lifelong Ohio resident.

Luis Valente De La Paz-Flores was driving north on Sawmill Parkway in a Chevrolet Astro van when he ran a red light and struck Large's Ford Expedition, which was heading west on Powell Road, Large said.

Valente, who prosecutors said was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash, pleaded guilty to vehicular assault and was deported to Mexico in 2001 after spending nine months in jail.

Large struggled but was able to keep his special-event business afloat while he recuperated. His SUV was totaled in the crash, and he battled his insurance company to cover his medical bills, he said.

But Large hadn't heard the last of Valente.

"He's back?" Large said after a Dispatch reporter told him that Valente had been arrested this summer in the University District.

"I figured he was going to be back," Large said.

Federal immigration authorities found Valente, now 33, in August and charged him with re-entering the country after being deported, a felony punishable by up to a $250,000 fine and 20 years in prison.

Valente is in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service, awaiting trial. His attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Although Large said he harbors no animosity toward Valente, he's reminded of him often.

Before the accident, Large, who has a black belt in karate, lived a life full of physical activity. Today, his joints ache and stiffen when he sits, and he walks with a limp.

"I've had nothing but pain since," he said.

Comprehensive fix

Police, activists on both sides, immigration lawyers and citizens of the United States and countries around the world have been begging legislators for years to reform the broken, contradictory and complex system of laws that govern immigration to the United States.

Attempts by some states to define how local law-enforcement agencies and ICE work together have become flashpoints in the national brawl over illegal immigration.

In July, a federal judge blocked some of the most controversial sections of an immigration law in Arizona - considered among the strictest in the nation - which required police to ask suspected illegal immigrants for their immigration papers in the course of enforcing other laws.

Legislators in Ohio are closely watching what's going on in Arizona.

Rep. Courtney Eric Combs, a Republican from Hamilton, said he plans to approach other members of the legislature about passing a law that would incorporate the elements of Arizona's law that were deemed constitutional.

If the Ohio legislature won't act, he said, there are plans to put the issue on the statewide ballot.

In Ohio and across the country, local and state law-enforcement officers routinely arrest illegal immigrants for various offenses, then turn them over to immigration authorities for deportation.

Since 2002, almost 2,000 people have been transferred from the Franklin County jail to ICE custody.

Those opposed to illegal immigration say it's necessary to root out dangerous criminals, and to find and remove immigrants living illegally in the United States. Immigrants-rights advocates say the practice is outside the jurisdiction of local law enforcement, begets racial profiling and breeds distrust of police within ethnic communities.

What's needed is federal immigration reform, said David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

"We need a comprehensive fix, and Congress needs to do it," he said.