Blog Archive

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

In S.D., deportations are few, But supporters call illegal immigration initiative effective

John Hult
Argus Leader

November 28, 2010

An effort to find and remove illegal immigrants with criminal records from South Dakota has led to the deportation of five people in its first five months.

The five are among a larger group of 3,127 immigrants removed from South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota so far in 2010.

The Secure Communities Initiative asks jailers to send the fingerprints of every new inmate through a federal database to quickly identify illegal immigrants most likely to pose a danger to the community.

Minnehaha and Pennington counties joined June 22. Custer, Fall River and Jackson counties soon followed.

Of the almost 4,500 sets of prints scanned since then, only 12 have prompted action by a response from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Some South Dakota lawmakers say the small return from the ICE program is further proof that the federal government's strategies are ineffective. They say a set of Arizona-style state laws punishing illegal immigrants and anyone who offers them a job, a home or transportation could force the hand of Washington, D.C.

Others see the numbers as a sign that South Dakota's immigration issues aren't pressing enough for a law that could fill state jails with international offenders and draw costly legal challenges.

Feeding a growing distrust

Victim's advocates fear that programs such as Secure Communities and laws such as Arizona's do little but foment distrust between law enforcement and minorities.

For Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead, who signed off on the fingerprint checks this summer at ICE's request, deportations never were meant to be the measure of the program's success.

Secure Communities, he said, is simply a way to foster communication between frustrated agencies tasked with tackling a problem that has grown larger than the laws written to deal with it.

"Whether it's one or it's 100, the key is that there's a mechanism in place to link us together," Milstead said. "I think many Americans realize that our current laws and current enforcement are marginal at best."

No drawbacks, sheriff says

Milstead didn't expect huge numbers. Realistically, the program is designed to catch people who already have been caught at least once.

"Most people who are here illegally are not going to have their fingerprints in a database," he said.

Still, he said, there was no reason not to join the program. Signing up is free and gives ICE a chance to catch the worst of the worst.

Before Secure Communities, new prints were checked only against the Federal Bureau of Investigation's criminal database. Now, the prints go there and to the Department of Homeland Security, ICE's parent agency.

Immigration officers get a notice every time the system detects a previously-convicted criminal or possible illegal immigrant.

It's up to ICE to decide what to do after that. The agency does not and cannot pursue everyone, ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer said. Not every crime is a deportable offense under federal law.

A drug conviction involving narcotics qualifies a person for deportation, for example. A drug conviction involving an ounce or less of marijuana is not.

Simply being in the country illegally doesn't catch ICE's attention.

"That's why we try to focus on those violent offenders," Neudauer said.

ICE wants every county jail in the nation to join Secure Communities. Since it began in 2008, 788 jurisdictions in 34 states have signed up.

Neudauer also was not surprised at the number of deportations in South Dakota. Three counties in Montana signed up on July 27, and ICE has not detained or deported anyone.

"It takes time for these cases to move through the system," he said.

Not time-consuming cases

U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson has one experienced prosecutor for immigration cases in each of his three offices. They deal with felony cases of illegal reentry after deportation, most of which originate through ICE investigations.

Immigration judges generally deal with nonfelony deportations.

The number of felony cases in South Dakota has fluctuated but held relatively steady for the past 10 years, even as the foreign-born population has more than doubled in some parts of the state.

Such cases amount to 15 percent to 18 percent of Johnson's caseload. ICE can send as many as they find, Johnson said, because cases often are open-and-shut affairs with clear proof of re-entry.

"These cases are not very time-consuming," Johnson said. "We have plenty of resources that have been allocated to us."

Counties pass court information along to ICE as well. Minnehaha County State's Attorney Aaron McGowan has opened 25 cases for possession of a forged instrument, a crime that most often refers to a fake Social Security card used by an illegal immigrant.

State prosecutors dismiss those cases if the defendant is taken into ICE custody.

"If they're going to be deported and we can save some tax dollars on that ... we're going to work with federal authorities," McGowan said.

Six of the 25 county forged instrument cases have been dismissed so far, McGowan said, while eight people have pleaded or been found guilty and 11 cases are still open.

Federal policies criticized

McGowan, like Milstead and Johnson, said ICE officers in South Dakota are accessible and easy to work with. Because Secure Communities makes it easy to trade information, they all support the program.

So do state Rep. Manny Steele and state Sen. Craig Tieszen. However, they think policies at the federal level limit ICE officers and let too many immigrants free.

Nationwide, concerns about civil liberties have cropped up through Secure Communities. But law officers here and elsewhere say the program is necessary to deal with problems caused by insecure borders.

Mitchell's Salgado case

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley points to the killing of 16-year-old Mitchell High School student Jasmine Guevara by Alexander Salgado as an example of such problems.

Salgado is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole for his part in Guevara's November 2009 murder. She burned to death in the trunk of her own car in rural Hanson County after being stabbed repeatedly by Salgado and his 15-year-old girlfriend.

Both Salgado and his 15-year-old girlfriend were in the U.S. illegally.

"He shouldn't have even been here, and he ended up killing a little girl," Jackley said.

Milstead said he thinks the coming immigration debate in the legislatures of South Dakota and almost two dozen other states "scratches the surface" of the national immigration reform voters want.

For law enforcement, especially in smaller communities without the easy access Milstead has to ICE officers, there can be disappointment. Officers can collect evidence on illegal immigrants, but in the end, local agencies must rely on ICE.

"We have a marginal ability to act in these situations," Milstead said.

For Huron Police Chief Doug Schmitt, the frustration has translated into inaction.

In many cases, "if we encounter someone we know to be in the country illegally, we can pick them up but ICE won't come get them," he said. "It's frustrating, at best."

Reach reporter John Hult at 331-2301.