Feds Open Holes In Metro Jail Deportation Plan

Christian Bottorff and Lindsey Naylor, The Tennessean (Nashville), June 10, 2007

Nearly a third of illegal immigrants identified during the first six weeks of a new Metro Jail program were simply released on their honor, without posting bail or a bond.

Those released are given notices to appear at immigration hearings in Memphis or Oakdale, La., though anecdotal evidence suggests the vast majority of those people fail to show up.

“We’ve heard 10-20 percent will go to court, and the rest probably will not,” said Deputy Tom Davis, director of immigration enforcement for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office.

While the number of local prisoners handed over to federal immigration officials is up dramatically since Metro launched its program in mid-April, the releases could point to a gaping hole in the plan that aims to deport illegal immigrants who get arrested in the Nashville area.

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This year, 15 Davidson County deputies underwent immigration training and a computer system was installed in the Metro Jail allowing access to federal immigration records. Local deputies now check the immigration status of every foreign-born person booked into Nashville’s main lockup.

Between April 15 and May 31, 476 Metro Jail prisoners were identified as illegal immigrants. Of those, 213 were ordered held without bail. Another 113 were released on immigration bonds. The rest, 150, were set free on their own recognizance.

At least 22 of the immigrants had been deported before.

The 213 inmates held on immigration orders during the program’s first 45 days marks a sharp increase from the 151 Metro Jail prisoners subjected to immigration holds in all of 2006.

Guidelines set releases

Immigration rules mandate the release of certain illegal immigrants, officials said.

Karla Crocker, spokeswoman for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, said, “There are specific guidelines that we have to follow as far as considering who would be released on their own recognizance, who would be detained without bond and who would be issued an immigration bond and given the opportunity to be released.”

Federal policy calls for the release of certain illegal immigrant detainees who are deemed “low risk,” said Temple Black, spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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Husband held, wife frets

Undocumented immigrants booked on misdemeanor offenses have a strong chance of being released without bond if they have no prior criminal history or previous immigration offenses, local and federal officials said.

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Despite the releases, Metro’s immigration program is removing large numbers of hardworking people who pose no threat to the community and pay a vital role in driving the local economy, said Terry Horgan, director of Hispanic services for the Woodbine Community Organization.

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Virginia Abernethy, a professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, is an advocate of strong immigration laws. Arresting and identifying illegal immigrants only to release them is a mistake, she said.

“After they’re released on their own recognizance, it is a well-established statistic that fewer than 20 percent return,” Abernethy said. “The rest disappear into the community. . . . The only way to fix this system is to begin enforcing the penalties.”

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