Illegal Immigrants Fill SoCal Jail

Elliot Spagat, AP, June 28

SAN DIEGO—To understand why undocumented immigrants from countries other than Mexico often are freed soon after being caught sneaking across the border, look at the bottleneck in San Diego’s immigration jail.

For reasons both bureaucratic and practical, the 850 inmates filling the beds are likely to stay months, weeks or even years. As a result, there’s just no room left.

Long-term residents include a 48-year-old Polish man locked up since November 2000 who refuses to sign a document that would put him on a plane home. Authorities have all but given up trying to deport him.

A 22-year-old Chinese man detained since December won’t fill out paperwork the Chinese government requires for anyone deported. A Tongan man has waited four months for his government to send travel documents promised long ago. Even the quick turnarounds—Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans—stay two or three weeks.

U.S. officials must navigate legal and logistical roadblocks to deport non-Mexicans, often forcing protracted negotiations with foreign governments and even airlines. The consequence: Border Patrol agents release many of the non-Mexicans they catch.

With only 19,444 beds nationwide, immigration jails are picky about whom they accept.

Under federal guidelines, anyone with a record of violent crimes including murder and rape must be jailed. Those from 35 so-called “special-interest” countries linked to terrorism also get a close look.

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Deportation Officer Yadira Avalos gets some of the trickiest cases, including Cubans, Vietnamese and others whose governments don’t have full diplomatic relations with the United States.

She started a recent day by updating files on a Cuban who was released after the Department of Homeland Security determined there was little chance Cuba would ever accept him. His U.S. criminal record included convictions in 1992 for attempted murder and selling drugs in 1999.

One of her cases is the Chinese inmate who refuses to fill out a questionnaire asking about job prospects and family in the United States. “He figures that if he doesn’t cooperate, we’re not going to be able to deport him,” said Avalos, who will continue to recommend to superiors that he stay in jail.

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