Michael Kiefer, Arizona Republic, July 20, 2006
Maricopa County Jail inmates convicted or cleared of human-smuggling charges and presumed to be undocumented were allowed to walk out of jail without being removed from the country because of a spat over jurisdiction between the Sheriff’s Office and federal immigration agents.
Since the first arrests made under Arizona’s human-smuggling law in March, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has filed 268 cases, 31 against suspected coyotes and the rest against suspected conspirators assumed to be undocumented immigrants.
So far, 63 have pleaded guilty to lesser offenses, 15 have been dismissed, two acquitted and one convicted by a jury.
But 17 have walked right out of the jail and into the community — including six who pleaded guilty to human-smuggling felonies — because the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency decided it wouldn’t transport out of the country people prosecuted under the controversial coyote law.
Since July 11, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has transported 14 more of the coyote-law defendants in four trips to the Yuma area to rendezvous with U.S. Border Patrol agents willing to take the prisoners and put them through the federal process for removal.
“Why would they refuse to pick up the felons?” Sheriff Joe Arpaio asked.
Because, according to an ICE spokesman, only federal agents with ICE, the Border Patrol and other U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials are legally empowered to determine who is a citizen and who is in the country legally, which they do through specific interviews and checks.
“An officer must base the determination of status upon either an interview of the subject or through fingerprint comparison with existing records,” ICE Special Agent in Charge Roberto Medina said in a July 6 letter to Arpaio. “Furthermore, only federal officers . . . can place detainers pursuant to the (Immigration and Nationality Act).”
State and county law enforcement can’t make such determinations about “alienage.”
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas was distressed.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, there are an average of 900 to 1,000 prisoners in the jail at any one time with immigration detainers, or holds, indicating that ICE is to be contacted before they can be released.
ICE picks up prisoners every weekday. According to ICE spokesman Russell Ahr, for example, the agency picked up 165 immigration detainees between June 11 and July 12. According to the Sheriff’s Office, the agency picked up 23 on Monday alone. But they refused to take the person in the group who had been prosecuted under the coyote law.
Ahr claimed ICE decisions are based on priorities: prior criminal history, immigration status, nationality and the nature of the crime they’re accused of.
“The purpose of a detainer is not to have an illegal alien removed; the purpose is to have a criminal alien removed,” he said.
When suspects are booked into Maricopa County jails, they are questioned on their immigration status. And if the interviewing officers doubt the suspect’s immigration status, they send a teletyped message to ICE, which responds with its decision of whether to place a detainer on that suspect after running the information through its databanks.
Arpaio claimed that 35 of the suspects charged with human-smuggling violations had immigration holds that were later removed.
The reasoning for dropping the holds, according to Medina’s letter, was that even though the suspects were being held on suspicion of human smuggling, which presupposes they are here illegally, ICE officials determined their interviews had not been conducted by qualified ICE personnel.