A little-noticed program to remove criminal immigrants from the U.S. has local immigration officials boasting about big results as they comb jails, juvenile centers and courts across Washington state in search of deportable inmates.
Since their big push began last June, immigration officials have placed 4,453 legal and illegal immigrants from throughout the state into removal proceedings. Last year, criminals represented about one-third of all immigrants who were expelled from the Northwest region and the U.S.
The ramped-up effort comes at a time of heightened national security and amidst a public outcry over immigrants who commit serious crimes—including at least three high-profile homicides in the Puget Sound region in recent years.
Confronted by an impaired federal immigration system, state and local governments have developed a patchwork of policies and practices for dealing with immigrants—particularly those here illegally. As a result, some jails work willingly with ICE; others merely tolerate its presence.
Under the so-called Criminal Alien Program, ICE officers identify and then request that jailers place holds on deportable immigrants before they are released from custody.
A Mason County District Court judge raised concerns over ICE officers appearing outside her courtroom two recent weeks in a row looking for defendants.
In a posting on an electronic mailing list for municipal and district court judges, Judge Victoria Meadows said ICE officers have searched her foreign-language calendar and asked her Spanish interpreter to identify a defendant who was to appear before her. The interpreter declined.
ICE’s Clark said his agency wants criminal immigrants penalized for their actions and tries to work closely with courts and local enforcement to make criminal and immigration laws work together.
As part of the push to make the removal of criminal immigrants a priority, ICE transferred the program from its investigations division to its detention and removal operations last year and beefed up staffing and resources. “It’s turning out great results,” Clark said.
Immigration advocates warn immigrants who are not U.S. citizens that the surest way to avoid deportation is to stay out of trouble and out of jail.
“The most important thing to remember, if you do get arrested, is to stay silent—about everything,” said immigration attorney Adolfo Ojeda-Casimiro.
Simple question is key
The most crucial part of ICE’s criminal-alien program is information the immigrants themselves supply, based on a question people are routinely asked when booked into jail: Where were you born?
Immigration officers process names of the foreign born to discover those who are deportable. That includes not just illegal immigrants but also legal green-card holders who may eventually be found guilty of certain kinds of crimes that make them deportable.
ICE officers place an immigration hold on them—guaranteeing ICE will be notified before such an immigrant is released—and immediately begin trying to deport them.