James Pinkerton, Houston Chronicle, April 10, 2008
The U.S. Homeland Security department has launched an ambitious nationwide effort that would cost $2 billion to $3 billion a year to identify and deport the estimated 300,000 to 450,000 illegal immigrants locked up each year in jails and prisons.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operation was denounced by immigrant rights groups and received cautiously by those favoring tighter enforcement.
“We can do something few law enforcement agencies can do: Not only ensure criminals are off the streets, but ensure they are removed from the country,” said ICE spokesman Tim Counts. “Removing hundreds of thousands of criminals from the country is sure to have a positive impact on community safety.”
The recently announced ICE effort, known as “Secure Communities,” will upgrade computer technology in jails and allow local jailers to access ICE’s fingerprint database to quickly identify prisoners with immigration violations as they are booked. The $200 million in funding already allocated for the program this year would also add an unspecified number of ICE detention and removal officers, Counts confirmed.
The program would also:
* Prioritize removal of criminal immigrants based on their danger to the community.
* Expand an early parole program for non-violent immigrants who agree to deportation.
* Add staff in field offices so ICE detention officers are available around-the-clock to assist local jailers in deportation.
* Increase the 287 (g) program, which trains state and local law enforcement officers to perform immigration duties.
Counts said the first priority would be removing “level one” immigrants, those convicted of major drug offenses and violent crimes including murder, manslaughter, rape and armed robbery. Removing those offenders would cost around $1 billion a year. ICE estimates the cost to remove all convicted criminal immigrants in custody would be $2 billion to $3 billion annually.
“We estimate it will take approximately three and a half years to remove all level one criminal aliens, and to test the program’s effectiveness,” Counts said.
Fire from both sides
The new multiyear ICE operation has raised questions from groups on both sides of the immigration debate.
Curtis Collier, president of the U.S. Border Watch in Houston, said illegal immigrants should only be deported after completing their sentences.
Arnoldo Garcia, program coordinator for the National Network of Immigrant Refugee Rights, said the ICE effort could result in profiling of immigrants.