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March 28, 2008 ­ New York Times (NY)

304,000 Inmates Eligible for Deportation, Official Says

By Julia Preston

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

At least 304,000 immigrant criminals eligible for deportation are behind bars nationwide, a top federal immigration official said Thursday.

That is the first official estimate of the total number of such convicts in federal, state and local prisons and jails.

The head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Julie L. Myers, said the annual number of deportable immigrant inmates was expected to vary from 300,000 to 455,000, or 10 percent of the overall inmate population, for the next few years.

Ms. Myers estimated that it would cost at least $2 billion a year to find all those immigrants and deport them.

This week, Ms. Myers presented a plan to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security intended to speed the deportation of immigrants convicted of the most serious crimes by linking state prisons and county jails into federal databases that combine F.B.I. fingerprint files with immigration, border and antiterrorism records of the Homeland Security Department.

In an interview on Thursday, Ms. Myers said the plan would bring "a fundamental change" by streamlining deportations of foreign-born criminals.

Representative David E. Price, Democrat of North Carolina and chairman of the subcommittee, wrote a five-page letter on Thursday saying that the agency's plan did "not meet the legal requirements" of the 2008 appropriation that gave the agency $200 million to deport criminals.

Mr. Price said the plan failed to focus mainly on illegal immigrants who committed crimes, did not provide for any coordination with immigration courts and justice officials and included huge unexplained cost increases.

Based on the schedule in the plan, Mr. Price said, he did not see evidence that the agency "shares my sense of urgency about removing criminals from our country before they victimize Americans again."

In the intensely contentious debate over immigration, one point that generally draws broad agreement is that federal authorities should deport illegal immigrant criminals as swiftly as possible. But considerable confusion prevails about how fast that might be.

Immigrants convicted of crimes -- including illegal immigrants and those who had legal immigration status at the time of the crime -- must serve their sentences before they can be deported. Many immigrant convicts are naturalized United States citizens who are not subject to deportation.

Ms. Myers said her agency, known as ICE, was seeking to expand operations to identify jailed immigrant criminals. The agency is working in all federal and state prisons, but reaches just 300 of 3,100 local jails, an official said.

The agency plans a major effort to use new technology and databases at local jails so law enforcement officers can determine at booking whether immigrants have previously committed serious crimes or immigration violations.

ICE officers bring charges while immigrants are serving their sentences so they can be deported as soon as they complete their terms without being released from custody.

"We will identify individuals who pose the greatest risk as quickly as possible," Ms. Myers said, including in jails that the agency cannot visit regularly.

Surprised by Mr. Price's letter, she rejected his criticism of the plan's legality. She was supported by Representative Harold Rogers of Kentucky, senior Republican on the appropriations subcommittee, who said the plan could be refined.

In fiscal 2007, 164,000 immigrant inmates were charged with immigration violations to prepare the way for deportation, and 95,000 immigrants with criminal histories were deported, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement figures.

Immigration lawyers warned that unless local law enforcement officers were trained in immigration law, the ICE plan could focus on many immigrants who committed minor violations that did not make them deportable.

"Immigration law is confusing and convoluted and not user friendly," said David Leopold, a vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "To turn that over to local law enforcement without training is asking for trouble."

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