Blog Archive

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bill would require convicted illegal immigrant criminals to be deported when released

By Keona Gardner
Sunday, March 13, 2011

An immigration enforcement program created to help federal authorities capture and deport illegal immigrants with a violent criminal history is deporting more people who have no criminal background than those who do, records show.

And federal officials can't explain why.

Since February 2009 when the Secure Communities program started on the Treasure Coast, 119 illegal immigrants without a criminal background have been deported, compared to 25 — or about 13 percent — illegal immigrants who have past violent crime convictions such as murder, drug trafficking or rape, according to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement records.

Statewide, about 42 percent of illegal immigrants labeled "noncriminal" have been deported, compared to about 20 percent of illegal immigrants who have a violent criminal history, records show. Nationally, 28 percent of illegal immigrants without a criminal history have been deported compared to about 23 percent of those with a violent criminal history.

ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas couldn't explain why more noncriminal illegal immigrants are deported.

One explanation could be that immigration law requires any current charges to have been resolved before deportation proceedings begin, authorities said.

Despite the disparity between noncriminal and criminal deportations, Navas said the program is a success because it follows the ultimate objective of ICE — to enforce federal immigration laws.

"Secure Communities is ICE's comprehensive strategy to improve and modernize the identification and removal of criminal aliens from the United States," she said.

Secure Communities works by requiring local law enforcement agencies to scan the fingerprints of everyone booked into the local jail and compare those fingerprints with immigration records from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and criminal history records from the FBI, Navas said.

If fingerprints match records from Homeland Security, then local law enforcement officials notify ICE.

Then, ICE investigators determine what immigration action is needed by considering immigration status, severity of the recent crime committed and criminal history, Navas said.

Treasure Coast law enforcement officials said the program helps authorities quickly learn an arrestee's complete criminal history and they receive a faster response time from ICE when the agency learns a non-U.S. citizen has been arrested.

"Before, if we arrested someone and they posted bond, we never knew if that person was illegal or if they were a legal permanent resident before they left," said Indian River County Sheriff's Office Capt. Selby Strickland, who supervises the jail.

St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office Maj. Patrick Tighe, who oversees the jail, said he has no complaints about how the program works and that it hasn't changed how staff work because the jail already had a computerized fingerprinting system.

"(ICE is) able to provide us information that helps to reduce risks to officer safety and can be used in criminal investigations," Martin County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Rhonda Irons said,

But Vero Beach immigration attorney Jimmy Benincasa called the federal enforcement program "a large dragnet" that does more harm than good.

"The problem is that it catches all the fish that you want and the ones that you need to throw back," Benincasa said.

Benincasa said he supports deporting immigrants who have committed violent crimes, but cautions not to label all illegal immigrants as criminals because of their status.

"What about an 18-year-old or 21-year-old who was brought here as a child?" he said. "Are we going to send them back when this is the only country they know? When, possibly, they don't speak the language?"

Immigration enforcement programs like Secure Communities could receive help in removing convicted illegal immigrants because of a proposed bill that would require Homeland Security to do so.

U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, who represents parts of Martin and St. Lucie counties, introduced legislation on March 3 that would require Homeland Security to deport illegal immigrants who have been convicted of committing a crime at the time of their release.

Under the proposed Criminal Alien Removal Act, prisons will be allowed to hold convicted illegal immigrants after they have served their sentence until they can be transferred to federal custody. Under current law, if ICE is not present when an illegal immigrant's incarceration ends, then the inmate is released, Rooney said.

"The current situation, where criminals who are here illegally in the first place just get released back into the community, is unacceptable," Rooney said in an e-mail.

Rooney said his bill, which has been referred to the House Judiciary Committee for discussion, has the same goals as Secure Communities — identifying and deporting immigrants who have committed crimes.

"We cannot continue to allow criminal aliens to slip through the cracks," he said in an e-mail.

Groups that support immigration enforcement said they are pleased the program is working to identify all illegal immigrants because it helps secure our borders, lessen the taxload and keep jobs for U.S. citizens and immigrants who are here legally.

"The minute you enter this country illegally you are submitting yourself to deportation," said Stuart resident Jack Oliver, legislative director for Floridians for Immigration Enforcement. "There's nothing unfair to enforcing the law. The law is the law. Either we're going to be a nation of laws or we aren't."


Below is a breakdown of illegal immigrants removed from the United States and returned to their home county through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Secure Communities Program. The program groups illegal immigrants into one of four categories:

Level 1: Illegal immigrants convicted of the most violent crimes such as murder, rape, drug trafficking

Level 2: Illegal immigrants convicted of property crimes, extortion and three or more misdemeanors

Level 3: Illegal immigrants convicted of misdemeanor crimes such as minor drug offenses and disorderly conduct

Non-criminal: Illegal immigrants who have never been convicted of a crime, though they are in this country illegally

Indian River County

Activation: June 22, 2009

Level 1 offenders: 6 arrested; 0 removed

Level 2 offenders: 2 arrested; 0 removed

Level 3 offenders: 2 arrested; 2 removed

Non-criminals: 15 arrested; 8 removed

Martin County

Activation: June 22, 2009

Level 1 offenders: 6 arrested; 2 removed

Level 2 offenders: 6 arrested; 2 removed

Level 3 offenders: 5 arrested; 1 removed

Non-criminals: 33 arrested; 21 removed

St. Lucie County

Activation: Feb. 18, 2009

Level 1 offenders: 72 arrested; 23 removed

Level 2 offenders: 63 arrested; 39 removed

Level 3 offenders: 15 arrested; 12 removed

Non-criminals: 148 arrested; 90 removed

Source: Immigration and Customs Enforcement