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Friday, April 15, 2011

Measure to hasten inmate deportations nears OK

By Mike Faulk
Yakima Herald-Republic
April 15, 2011

Legislation to reduce the state's prison population by making it faster and easier to deport immigrant inmates is nearing approval in Olympia.

House Bill 1547 would reduce the state's average daily prison population by 127 and save the $1.2 million in the 2012 fiscal year, said John Scott Blonien, assistant secretary for the state Department of Corrections, said.

The bill, which would send immigrant inmates directly to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, applies only to immigrant prisoners convicted of nonviolent and nonsexual crimes. The category represents a small share of the state's total inmate population of 16,000.

"These are individuals who without fail would have been deported anyway," Blonien said. "It's just a question of when the deportation takes place."

The bill has been overwhelmingly approved by both the House and Senate, but differences between the bill's two versions must be reconciled.

The House version says an arrest warrant would be issued for the inmate for the remainder of his or her sentence, a safeguard that would land offenders back in prison if they re-enter the country during that time. The Senate version calls for the warrant to remain in effect indefinitely.

Immigrants rights groups want language added to clarify how offenders facing deportation will be made aware of their rights under the newer and, theoretically, faster release and deportation process.

"While this bill is not directly dealing with deportation, it can affect people's means to contest a deportation order," Jorge Baron, executive director of the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, said.

Baron said the legislation affects legal and illegal immigrants alike. Because those facing deportation have no right to an attorney in immigration proceedings, Baron said the legislation needs a requirement to keep inmates informed of the proceedings before they're carried out.

Baron said under the current process, inmates who could face deportation have time to contact immigrants rights groups such as his to arrange private counsel for immigration court.

"Without any indication they'll be turned over, they won't have time to pursue options under this bill," he said.

But Blonien says a process already exists in federal court for those facing deportation to be advised of their rights to contest it. He said it would be "extremely awkward" to require state- appointed defense council to advise people on federal immigration policy and state courts to verify it.

"Before the judge gives an offender the opportunity to stipulate or agree to a deportation, there's a full panoply of rights they're advised of," Blonien said.

The bill passed the House in March and passed the Senate April 5. It now heads back to the House for a vote on the two amendments added by the Senate.