A System’s Fatal Flaws

Susan Carroll, Houston Chronicle, November 16, 2008

Federal immigration officials allowed scores of violent criminals—some ordered deported decades ago—to walk away from Harris County Jail despite the inmates’ admission to local authorities that they were in the country illegally, a Houston Chronicle investigation found.

A review of thousands of criminal and immigration records shows that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials didn’t file the paperwork to detain roughly 75 percent of the more than 3,500 inmates who told jailers during the booking process that they were in the U.S. illegally.

Although most of the inmates released from custody were accused of minor crimes, hundreds of convicted felons—including child molesters, rapists and drug dealers—also managed to avoid deportation after serving time in Harris County’s jails, according to the Chronicle review, which was based on documents filed over a period of eight months starting in June 2007, the earliest immigration records available.

Other key findings in the investigation include:

* In 177 cases reviewed by the Chronicle, inmates who were released from jail after admitting to being in the country illegally later were charged with additional crimes. More than half of those charges were felonies, including aggravated sexual assault of a child and capital murder.

* About 11 percent of the 3,500 inmates in the review had three or more prior convictions in Harris County. Many had repeatedly cycled through the system despite a history of violence and, in some cases, outstanding deportation orders.

The investigation found that the federal government’s system to identify and deport illegal immigrants in Harris County Jail is overwhelmed and understaffed. Gaps in the system have allowed some convicted criminals to avoid detection by immigration officials despite being previously deported. The problems are national in scope, fueled by a shortage of money and manpower.

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“No agency has enough law enforcement officers to do the job the way they’d like,” Landgrebe said [Kenneth Landgrebe, ICE’s field office director for detention and removal in Houston]. “If you look at law enforcement in general—at Houston or New York City or Los Angeles police—do they apprehend every criminal that commits a crime? No. Do they arrest every person that speeds in a traffic zone? No.

Missed opportunities

ICE officials estimated that between 300,000 and 450,000 inmates incarcerated in the U.S. are eligible for deportation each year.

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Yet, the Chronicle’s review found hundreds of missed opportunities to deport convicted criminals, perpetuating a cycle of crime and violence.

* Armando De La Cruz, a Mexican national, told jailers on two occasions in 2007 that he was undocumented. Both times, he was convicted of assaulting his wife and released after serving his jail time. De La Cruz is now back in Harris County Jail, charged with raping a woman at knife point behind a southeast Houston apartment complex in July, and attempting to rape another woman less than a week later. His defense attorney, Ricardo Gonzalez, did not return phone calls.

* Pedro Alvarez, a convicted sex offender from El Salvador who was first deported in 1991, racked up eight convictions in Harris County over a span of two decades and was allowed to walk free from jail multiple times—as recently as the spring of 2007. Immigration officials finally charged him with re-entry after deportation in February. Sandra Zamora Zayas, the attorney who represented Alvarez in federal court in South Texas, did not return phone messages.

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‘Never lied about who I am’

Miguel Mejia Rodriguez, 36, is locked up on the fifth floor of the San Jacinto Jail downtown, accused of raping and sodomizing a second-grader.

It is the fourth time in 12 years that Rodriguez, an unemployed drifter from Zacatecas, Mexico, has landed in Harris County Jail. Over the years, Rodriguez has served time for drug possession, theft, trespassing and indecent exposure. He told jailers he was in the country illegally in December 2006, after a security guard caught him touching himself in an apartment complex parking lot, records show.

But ICE officials did not file paperwork to detain Rodriguez. He was released after serving his 25-day sentence.

“I never lied about who I am, or where I’m from. I’m 100 percent Mexican,” Rodriguez said in a jail interview with the Chronicle in September, after he was accused of the rape and sodomy of a 7-year-old.

According to court records, the girl told a friend Rodriguez started abusing her after her mother died in 2005, while he was living with her family.

The girl was hospitalized and treated for syphilis, court records show. In an interview with Houston police detectives, Rodriguez admitted to contracting syphilis from a woman he met in a Houston cantina, but he denied raping the girl. He said she was a “troublemaker” who lied because he punished her when she misbehaved.

When he was arrested on the sexual assault charge in July 2007, Rodriguez again told jailers he was in the country illegally, records show. In June, nearly a year after his arrest, ICE officials filed paperwork to detain Rodriguez, who is scheduled for trial in December.

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Facts vs. fears

While the Chronicle’s review found cases involving hardened criminals who slipped through the deportation net, the investigation also revealed that 43 percent of suspects who were arrested and admitted being in the country illegally were charged with misdemeanors and had no prior criminal record in Harris County.

Immigrant advocates cautioned against stereotyping illegal immigrants based on high-profile cases. Most research has found that recent immigrants are far less likely than their U.S.-born counterparts to commit crimes and end up in prison.

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