The case isn’t an exception. Fewer than half the foreigners convicted of crimes in the U.S.—most of whom are in the country illegally—are deported after serving their sentences, according to the Homeland Security Department’s inspector general.
Cases like Lopez’s point up holes in the nation’s overwhelmed immigration system, said Representative David Price, a North Carolina Democrat who heads a panel overseeing Homeland Security Department funding. “There’s no convincing case for putting anything higher on the priority list in terms of deportation than persons who’ve committed crimes,” Price said.
With the failure in the Senate of the immigration bill, which would have expanded a program to deport criminal aliens, Price is sponsoring a plan to increase spending to identify and expel such immigrants by 31 percent, to $180 million.
Price’s legislation, which passed the House June 15, would require the immigration agency to check monthly with the nation’s prisons and jails to get an up-to-date number of incarcerated illegal immigrants. Another provision in the legislation would expand a program to deputize local and state police to help identify potential deportees among people they arrest.
None of the 1,300 workers arrested at meatpacker Swift & Co.’s Greeley, Colorado, plant in December and the 360 arrested in March at New Bedford, Massachusetts-based textile maker Michael Bianco Inc. had been charged with a violent crime, said Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Raimondi said the Bush administration isn’t ignoring criminal immigrants, and that such raids often uncover illegal activity, such as money-laundering and identity theft. The administration is requesting a $29 million boost for the criminal-deportation program in the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, a 21 percent increase from its current $137 million budget.
The Homeland Security inspector general’s report estimates there are currently 302,500 deportable immigrants in American jails and prisons. Identifying candidates for deportation isn’t easy, though: They’re scattered among 5,033 prisons and jails, some run by the federal government, some by states and some, as in Kenosha County, by localities.
“This problem has become so large that the federal government can’t handle it alone,” said Sheriff Jim Pendergraph of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which since last year has identified 2,100 people for deportation by working with the federal government.
Torres says the inspector general’s figures on deportations are out of date, and says he’s in the middle of a review to figure how to better foster communications between federal officials and the prisons and jails. Even so, he says, he has only enough staff to cover half of those facilities.
Torres is focusing on federal prisons, where 27 percent of those incarcerated were born in other countries, according to the Government Accountability Office. In 2006, the U.S. sent 88,830 criminal immigrants back to their native countries with the help of agents and judges who work within prison walls to speed up the deportation process. About 107,000 non-criminal aliens were also deported.
Price said Torres’s strategy overlooks illegal immigrants in state and local prisons and jails, which make up 93 percent of the country’s facilities.
In Kenosha County, officers stopped alerting immigration officials about aliens in custody during the 1980s because federal budget cuts left no money for the deportations, said Captain Gary Preston, head of the local jail. “Law enforcement just got into the habit of not bothering,” he said.