In New Push, Deportees Will Be Jailed at Once
Effort to cut absconders expands to Denver
Bruce Finley, DenverPost.com, Mar. 31
All illegal immigrants ordered to undergo deportation will be jailed immediately under a pilot program being expanded to Denver and Atlanta, federal officials announced Tuesday.
The Department of Homeland Security program is an effort to reduce the number of illegal immigrants at large who have failed to leave the country as ordered.
Immigration-law experts said the program violates constitutional rights and called for less costly alternatives.
“Jailing and the restraint of physical movement is the greatest power that government can wield over the individual in our society. Unfortunately, with this policy, the Department of Homeland Security has eschewed case-by-case consideration in favor of a blanket detention policy that violates basic due-process principles,” said Marshall Fitz, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, an advocacy group.
In the past, immigrants ordered deported were often released so they could take care of personal affairs before reporting to leave the country.
But federal authorities increasingly have pressed for detention because of security concerns and evidence that as many as 85 percent of these illegal immigrants abscond. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials estimate there are more than 400,000 illegal immigrant fugitives — including 2,500 in the Denver area. About 80,000 of these absconders are criminals, according to federal officials.
The program, already underway in Hartford, Conn., and soon to begin in Denver and Atlanta, is an effort to reduce the burden of rounding up illegal immigrants later by arresting and jailing them immediately following federal immigration proceedings.
“If there are better ideas from the community or nongovernmental organizations, we are always looking for input. But we have to do something about these individuals,” said Doug Maurer, Homeland Security’s detention and removal field office director in Denver.
Homeland Security officials cited a government study concluded in 2001 that showed only 15 percent of illegal immigrants not immediately detained were eventually deported. Under Hartford’s program, 95 percent were deported, according to federal officials.
Immigrant-rights advocates say there are cheaper alternatives that respect civil liberties. Many call for releasing and monitoring deportable immigrants using ankle bracelets, which can cost as little as $4 a day compared with $85 per day in immigration detention centers. Immigration officials say they are trying such measures in a handful of cities but cited no specifics.
Carrying out the program may present a challenge.
It will add hundreds of new immigrants to a rapidly growing noncitizen prison population. The number of detained immigrants has increased from a daily average of 7,444 in 1994 to 21,500 last year, according to federal statistics.
Federal immigration officials have been lobbying to expand the prison system that holds them. Plans call for at least doubling the capacity of a 350-bed detention center east of Denver.
Recent budget wrangling has delayed that expansion, Maurer said.
When the program begins, it is likely to bring about 10 immigrants a week into the facility, which is routinely near capacity. On Tuesday, it was already full with 360 detainees.
The program may force detention officers to release some detainees they otherwise wouldn’t in order to make room for others, Maurer said.
“The security risk, if and when we do release individuals, … would be that the lowest-level individual that we have in detention would be the first considered … or be offered the chance to voluntarily return to their native country,” he said. “I don’t feel there’s going to be any security risk.”